Sugo Hand Roll Bar | Japanese/sushi hand rolls | $$-$$$$ (appetizers $4-$15, rolls $5-$21) | downtown | 2001 Western Ave., Seattle; 206-268-0172; sugohandroll.com | reservations for large parties only | no takeout/no outdoor seating | noise level: moderate to loud | access: no obstacles, one gender-neutral restroom

A plump fruit fly is slowly circling the airspace above my place setting at Sugo Hand Roll Bar. It’s midafternoon, and I am dining alone, the premise being the kind of nice solo late lunch to which you might treat yourself while visiting Seattle and walking around the adjacent Pike Place Market. Social media has been hyperpositive on “The Sugo experience!!!,” with out-of-towners and influencers galore sharing photos and videos of glowing Hawaiian poke hand rolls anointed with chili threads, of the lychee martini that gets a glycerin bubble on top that bursts with an impressive puff of smoke. Sugo itself scored a major social media coup, posting a picture of chef Daisuke Nakazawa of Michelin-starred Sushi Nakazawa on-site against the logo’d wall. It is not one of the places Nakazawa posted about on his recent visit here.

Sugo Hand Roll Bar looks good: one sleekly designed room, the central blond wood bar acting as a stage for the creation of its titular food that’s delivered directly to the eager audience all around. Hand roll bars have proved popular in other American cities; it’s a great idea. After opening earlier this year, Sugo was all over the place on social, then appeared on a local magazine’s best sushi list. Curiosity begged: Who was behind it? I’d been invited to Sugo’s media night via Instagram DM, and I’d declined, but asked for details; none were forthcoming. Information online was difficult to find, but Sugo used sustainable fish — proper, promising.

So, to the initial investigatory late lunch. Only a couple of other people sit around the perimeter of Sugo’s rectangular bar, out of 23 seats total. Diners are guided to a stool by a host, then given a menu list and a pen by a server, who circles back to beam the order a few feet to the chefs’ screen. Over a total of four recent visits, all the front-of-house staff were kind, looping back numerous times. The chefs, even when idle, seemed to have been instructed to avoid eye contact — contact altogether — except for placing food in front of you while saying the plainest version of its name. It’s opportunity lost. I’m here alone and would very much like to know more — is this fish wild-caught? Farmed? From where? Even a short poem of ingredients and provenance establishes the connection of the sushi bar — that feeling of briefly but fully belonging to the life of the ocean, fisher, chef, place and time.

The chefs work quickly, with varying degrees of expertise. I watch rice being compressed down onto a sheet of nori as if it may try to escape, then lobster salad spooned unevenly atop it; the cylindrical temaki that disgorges a glob out one end. The rice is mushy; the lobster has the visual appeal of grocery-store-sushi faux-crab salad, with a similar bland, generically seafoody creaminess. All the temaki here, whether gun-barrel-shaped or open-topped (they do not deal in cones) are 4 inches long and fairly narrow, meaning two or three bites. This one costs $8. While I am still reckoning with the situation, my bluefin tuna otoro arrives. I can’t stop myself from asking them to literally slow their roll; they will make a replacement when I’m ready, they say, and swiftly they do.

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The otoro, also scooped from a refrigerated bin, is glossy-looking but mushy in texture. The taste of the salt that’s been sprinkled on it overpowers where it’s meant to accent or, possibly in this case, rejuvenate. The nori is so chewy, it won’t bite cleanly through, requiring tearing with the teeth, which gets messy. This roll, at market price, costs $15 today.

From behind me, in the corner at their quiet post, a deep sigh comes from the host. What should be an afternoon’s small celebration is growing morose. The fruit fly is now on foot, circumnavigating the top of my sake pitcher, then moving on to the rim of my cup, which has a chip in it. 

Next up: Uni with caviar, the fish eggs serving to somewhat disguise the low-tide, yet metal-sour, taste of the saggy sea urchin. This is the kind of uni that makes people think that they really do not like uni. A few limp sprouts add further unpleasant texture and an unwelcome peppery note. Market price: $19.

The chef begins torching a piece of unagi for my next roll and does not stop for some time. Another chef comes in from the back and tells Chef No. 1 that the flame is turned too high. This, Chef No. 1 denies. It is too, Chef No. 2 says, then walks back out, shaking his head. Chef No. 1 fiddles with the torch, turns down the flame, then blasts the eel some more. 

The eel hand roll is not good, its incinerated taste and dryness augmented by a cloying sauce. Defeated, I am drinking the sake — the house’s cold version, it’s run-of-the-mill Kigen, for $13 — despite the fruit fly’s footprints. My chef is now yawning. Time to go.

I do have better rolls at other meals at Sugo Hand Roll Bar, but more in the vastly disappointing category, too. The Hawaiian poke version comes open-topped, the better to show off its gleaming fish cubes; the sesame oil stays subtle, sweet onion chimes in, and chili threads prove both pretty and functional with a tiny hit of heat. A crispy tofu roll would’ve been a favorite — the tofu golden-fried, velvety inside, simply contrasted with sweet onion, green onion and sprouts that are lively this time — except that it sat while I was clearly still eating the previous one. The surf-and-turf roll featured a thin, melty-rich slice of wagyu beef that’s torched atop a block of Himalayan pink salt, then anointed with truffle salt — this according to a server hailed down, with the chefs keeping any interesting information to themselves — in an ideal amount for contrast with the piece of lobster. The lobster is pleasantly oceanic-tasting and then, sadly, the chewiest I’ve ever encountered, chewing and chewing like a wad of seafood-flavored bubble gum. Market price: $21.

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Hand rolls must be eaten quickly, or their nori perversely becomes both soft and tough. Many sushi bars advise you of this when handing them over. Every time at Sugo, at least one roll arrived while I was still eating a previous one. Even when consumed with dispatch, the nori varied in quality, some already tough. Sometimes Sugo’s rice retained the fresh quality of individual grains working together; sometimes it was mushy; it was always flavorless. I had a sinking suspicion, so sought a glimpse into one of the two rice cookers behind Sugo’s counter: It was full of preformed rice pads, and it appears that all the chefs use them, forsaking a few seconds of care in what feels like a tremendous betrayal. I ventured to ask a chef about the kind of rice — “It’s nothing special,” they actually said. “It’s very starchy, though.”

Appetizers are hit and miss: crowd-pleasing “norichos” made with crispy, salty, delicious tempura-fried nori chips covered in a happy mess of Beecher’s cheese, masago, avocado, tomato and green onions; less happily messy edamame coated in greasy truffle oil, with the soybeans overcooked; a tuna dip with a palate-bludgeoning spicy heat and dry texture.

Two of the four cocktails on offer were unavailable on all my visits, making for a very short drink menu. The Melona poptail tasted delicious — fruit sweetness kept in check by sparkling sake, a creamy Melona ice pop dunked into it for fun — but it’s a strange choice for a chilly fall day, and unnecessary ice cubes stuck to the ice pop. The lychee sake martini gave me a shining moment of true joy; the big, shiny bubble that the server air-gunned onto the surface of it seemed adjacent to the kind of fleeting, tremendously pleasing gift that quality sushi gives, the big puff of fruit-scented smoke a hilarious turn of events. The server saw how much I loved the bubble and gave me another one. How could you not put it on your Instagram? 

The slick, upscale, of-the-moment aesthetic of Sugo Hand Roll Bar belies experiences that are all over the place. I received a hot towel on half of my visits; I was offered wasabi and ginger, oddly, one out of four times. Fruit flies joined me 50% of the time. The only napkins are small paper cocktail ones; one of the overhead paper light fixtures is mended with Scotch tape. My first lunch — one appetizer, four hand rolls, one drink — cost me $90.52 with tax and tip. It would be easy, wanting more drinks or possessing any considerable appetite, to spend a lot of money at Sugo — an amount that could take you to any other Seattle sushi bar. Order a bunch, and you’re in the range of our city’s best omakase experiences.

So what’s the story with Sugo? I recently received a press release about new food offerings at Climate Pledge Arena, and — as noted on the restaurant’s Instagram — Sugo Hand Roll Bar is now serving in the VIP lounges there. As is, according to the release, local chain Just Poké. And, it turns out, both are part of a parent company called Conscious Hospitality Group. Just Poké now has 20-plus locations, with more on the way; Sugo Hand Roll Bar is coming to Kirkland, with plans to further expand. It’s all built for volume, ready for replication.

I got a Hawaiian Classic bowl for lunch from my local Just Poké. It was just OK — not as good as Sugo’s Hawaiian poke hand roll, not as bad as many other things from my sampling of nearly the entire Sugo menu. But, at least, it cost just $13.99.

The dollar signs signify the average price of a dinner entree: $$$$ = $35 and over, $$$ = $25-$34, $$ = $15-$24, $ = under $15 (updated March 2022)