ROCKLAND, Maine — Most mornings, Keiko Suzuki Steinberger walks the short distance to the waterfront in Rockland from her restaurant on Main Street, Suzuki’s Sushi Bar. She greets one of several fishermen she works with, and from them she purchases all kinds of things. Some days it’s bags of herring and mackerel; other days it’s urchin, some sweet Maine shrimp, and perhaps a few flounder. Sometimes it’s even toro, the fatty tuna belly prized by sushi chefs, or creamy white diver scallops, depending on the season.
That evening that fish will end up on the dinner table, mere hours after it was plucked from the sea, arranged in colorful, delicate, symmetrical rows of sashimi, nigiri, maki and temaki. Steinberger’s backyard is the ocean, and as she excitedly points out, the freshness of the fish is incomparable.
“You can’t even get that freshness in Japan, unless you live right next to the ocean. And most people don’t,” said Steinberger, a spirited, friendly 32-year-old native of Sendai, Japan. “The scallops are just amazing. The texture is so firm, so nice. In Japan, the urchins are usually processed and preserved before they go to restaurants. Here, we take the shells off ourselves. It’s so tasty.”
Suzuki is nothing new in Rockland — it opened five years ago, a few years after Steinberger married her husband, Joe Steinberger, a local lawyer and founder of Rockland’s Penobscot School for Language Learning. For die-hard sushi fans and in-the-know locals, however, it’s a secret gem that breathes fresh life into traditional sushi dishes.
Nearly everything on the menu is from local purveyors — from the fish, to the array of vegetables for salads, soups and vegetarian sushi rolls. Where many sushi restaurants get their fish from all over the world, Suzuki, like Miyake in Portland, gets it right in Maine, which makes all the difference. After all, Maine’s seafood is among the best in the world. Why wouldn’t you use that?
“A lot of the fish in Maine you can find in Japan,” said Steinberger. “But there are little things that are a little different, which makes it interesting. The flavor is just a little different. It looks a little bit different. It is just different enough.”
Steinberger became a sushi chef by chance. She moved to Maine in the early 2000s, to work in her second cousin’s sushi restaurant, Oh! Bento, which since has closed. By 2005, she had learned enough about the trade both on the job and from books and DVDs to strike out on her own — though she admits that she’s still always learning. Last February, she attended the Tokyo Sushi Academy in Japan, learning the ins and outs of Japanese cuisine from master chefs.
“Actually, the hardest part is the rice. Sushi rice is very difficult to make,” said Steinberger. “You need to know just how warm it should be, what the texture should be. It is hard to make really proper rice. You can always learn more about it.”
In the Suzuki kitchen, Steinberger and her all-female crew — Yuki Goseki, Maho Hisakawa and Ritsuko Kato — are open for business five nights a week. The space is small, elegant and inviting, and retains a calming atmosphere. Steinberger and company use no stovetops, ovens or other large cooking devices; only electric burners and steamers, to keep the food as simple and healthful as possible.
Though in the U.S. few would bat an eye at a female sushi chef, in Japan, it’s virtually unheard of. Steinberger says that while in her home country it is still mostly men that make sushi, she saw many female sushi chefs during her time at the Tokyo Sushi Academy.
“Half of them were women,” she said. “They go to Japan to learn, and then they go to other countries to cook. It doesn’t really matter anywhere else, except in Japan.”
Diners at Suzuki will want to start off with one of several appetizers, such as the addictive shumai, a steamed dumpling made with tiny wild Maine shrimp, or oysters from the raw bar. Maine shrimp and Maine scallops figure into many items on the menu, though their distinctly Maine flavors and textures are best showcased by a simple sashimi preparation.
Local crabmeat and local mackerel show up in a variety of rolls, as does an array of local vegetables and mushrooms. The shiitake rolls and perfectly steamed asparagus are a vegetarian’s dream. Big, steaming bowls of soba or udon noodles swimming in dashi broth with seafood, chicken or vegetables are a winter cure-all — or at least, a very tasty way to warm up.
Adventurous eaters must try the monkfish liver pate, a traditional Japanese specialty made by Steinberger from the deep-sea fish caught off the coast of Maine. It isn’t always available, but when it is, it’s worth it. The usual flavor of liver is detectable, alongside a pleasingly fishy aroma, a garlicky tang, a nutty aftertaste, and a rich, buttery texture. It’s unlike anything else in the world. Lobster dinners and deep-fried everything are all well and good, but Maine seafood is much more than that — as evidenced by the packed tables most nights at Suzuki, with patrons waiting to sample Steinberger’s creations.
Suzuki’s Sushi Bar, located at 419 Main St. in Rockland, is open 4 p.m. to closing Tuesday-Saturday. For information, visit www.suzukisushi.com or call 596-7447.