Canton sushi hub makes up for bland decor with explosive flavors

Located in the space that used to house the ill-fated Te Amo, Shiso Tavern (2933 O'Donnell St., [410] 276-8800, attempts to bring "contemporary Asian Fusion" to the popular party-village scene of Canton Square. Tim Ernst, part of the team that owns Shiso Tavern, Blue Hill Tavern, and Tavern on the Square, says, "We wanted a subtle atmosphere, a calmer environment than what you get on the square." The result-subdued upstairs and downstairs dining rooms that don't demonstrate much of an Asian or Canton Square or any other kind of influence-is a space that is definitely restaurant first and bar second.

The food, on the other hand, was anything but bland. A starter of chili-garlic edamame ($4) straddled the line between spicy and tongue-melting. Slathered in garlic chili paste, this version of the classic appetizer was a good change of pace from the normal salt-crusted version. After eating most of the big bowl, which could have served four, the heat finally caught up with us-but even then it was a good burn. To ease the heat, we ordered a drink named feng shui ($8). Composed of cucumber- and lemongrass-infused gin, tonic, and "secret ingredients," this drink was refreshing yet light on the booze: It was easy to detect the tonic, the secret ingredient (which seemed to be Sprite), and a note of cucumber, but the gin flavor was notably lacking.

The fried pork belly ($12) was a hit. Seared on all sides and then finished in the oven, it came out browned and glossy. The sticky, red dragon sauce, a sweet and tangy barbecue sauce with a hint of Chinese five-spice, complemented the house-cured pickles, which boasted notes of star anise. Takoyaki nage ($12), battered balls of grilled octopus served on crisp, fried rice cakes and topped with a spicy aioli, was a solid choice overall. The octopus came out slightly overcooked, but the dish as a whole made up for it. The nests of fried rice sopped up all of the juices, the stickiness of which blended well with the creaminess of the balls. A soy-sauce reduction gave it a touch of sweetness.

Our two samples of Shiso Tavern's sushi couldn't have been more different. The delicious green dragon roll ($12) was made up of barbecued eel and cucumber on the inside, with avocado and eel sauce (a sweet soy reduction) atop the rice. The roll bounced back and forth from creamy to crunchy and sweet and savory. We devoured it.

The smoked salmon skin roll ($8), however, never made it past the first bites. The fishy (in a bad way) salmon skin was chopped into a bacon-bit-like size and sprinkled on yamagobo, shiso leaf, and avocado. The yamagobo (pickled burdock root) enhanced the fishiness of the salmon skin, while the avocado and shiso played against its texture. It was inedible.

But the Shiso ramen bowl ($14) was the biggest disappointment of the night. The huge bowl of noodles, soft-boiled egg, wok-fried pork belly, Fresno chilies, and scallions somehow managed to come out extremely bland. Even with soy sauce, there was just nothing there. Ramen is all about layering flavors, and when nothing has anything to offer, the dish fails to get off of the ground. Smoky bacon and a rich dashi broth would do wonders for the generous amount of noodles here.

The kung pao tofu ($14) helped ease the disappointment. This version was better than any delivery place we've ever had, with crunchy veggies mixed in a sweet sauce that was tempered by chilies (which, if you are not careful, can blow your head off). The crisply cooked tofu pieces act as little sponges that, along with crunchy peanuts, add texture.

Dessert at Shiso Tavern is still somewhat of a work in progress. They're still looking for that combination of playful, intriguing sweets to keep patrons from wandering off into the wilds of the Canton nightlife. They are almost there with the trio of whoopie pies ($6). The sandwiches, filled with chocolate lime, pineapple orange, or lemon yuzu, satisfied our sweet tooth but had some issues. The chocolate whoopie pie was liberally stuffed, but the other two had so little filling we had to take them apart to see which was which. Had they all been sufficiently filled it would have been good ending to an enjoyable dinner.

Shiso Tavern is by no means perfect, but there are some soaring highlights. They have a little tightening up to do, but they are already a superior dinner option to most of the restaurants in Canton.

Shiso Tavern is open Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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