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New Santa Rosa restaurant offers robot-served sushi

Sushi Rosa

Where: 515 Fourth St., Santa Rosa

When: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 - 9 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Contact: 707-843-5132, sushirosa.com

Cuisine: Japanese

Price: Moderate, entrees $14 - $30

Summary: The Chong family has debuted their sixth Sonoma County Japanese restaurant in a more upscale format than the others, but still saluting their satisfying, value-driven menu model.

After moving from Scottsdale to Sebastopol 16 years ago, I quickly set out to explore Sonoma County’s most interesting restaurants. One of my editors at the time suggested I check out Tex Wasabi’s in Santa Rosa because, despite its curious concept of serving barbecue and sushi in a cavernous nightclub setting, it was packing in customers.

I went. I dined. I regretted it immediately and immensely. There was a Jackass roll of tapioca rice paper stuffed with sushi rice, avocado, barbecued pork, french fries and garlic chile mayo. A Hog-Tied King maki was a monstrosity of salmon, bacon, cream cheese, sriracha, unagi sauce, green onions and crispy onions, all flash-fried and drenched in sweet chile sauce. Instead of soy, you could dunk your sushi in barbecue sauce.

So you can imagine it didn't break my heart when Tex Wasabi's finally closed in 2019. And you might understand why, after Sushi Rosa debuted in the former Tex space this past June, I asked its co-owner, Meehyun Chong, what she and her family did to reinvent the place. I was thinking “exorcism,” but she politely told me that all they really did was “lots and lots of cleaning.”

It’s true the new restaurant has a few oddball sushi recipes of its own. Spanning seven pages, the menu includes a maki roll stuffed with beef pot stickers and cucumber ($9), and you can add extra fillings like cream cheese ($1), macadamia nuts ($2) or jalapeño ($1). There’s a hand roll wrapped around grilled chicken and cucumber ($6), and you can dress it up with crab ($3) and lemon slices ($1).

Yet co-owner, head chef and Chong’s father Song Ku “Billy” Chong chooses premium local and imported fish from San Francisco markets, emphasizing certified sustainable catches. And there are plenty of classic nigiri and sashimi to be enjoyed at the gleaming glass-and-stone sushi bar, in cuts ranging from hamachi ($7) to hotategai (Hokkaido scallop, $7).

At one lunch, I sat near a gentleman who had ordered a combo that was so pretty I almost asked to take a photo. As he savored the six-piece nigiri and nine-piece sashimi set ($23), he proclaimed it “the best sushi in Santa Rosa.” That’s definitely stretching it for the satisfying but generally standard fare, though for the dollar value and generous portion sizes, this seafood shines.

The Chong family is known for its well-priced, reliable Japanese food. They also own O! Sushi in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, Otoro Sushi in Healdsburg and the bargain-driven Quick Sushi in Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park (serviceable nigiri for $3.50, maki for $5). Family members or friends run all the restaurants.

Here, in the 5,100-square-foot, two-story Sushi Rosa, dishes are a bit more upscale than at the Chongs’ other locations. There are nice touches like tsukemono (tart, handcrafted pickled vegetables, $8); real crab featured throughout the menu; traditional items like tender, whole grilled teriyaki squid ($16); and fresh fruit soju cocktails ($11 - $15).

Many dishes are artfully arranged, like tuna tama, where the ruby red fish curls around a knob of rice under a cap of tobiko and raw quail egg ($12). Salmon salad is another attractive plate, the thinly sliced fish pressed into a terrine with chopped mango and avocado, topped in tobiko and served with tempura asparagus ($15). With its sweet-salty notes, it ends up being one of my favorite choices.

Plus, a visit here is entertaining. In a high-tech touch, servers take orders on tablets hung on cross-body straps, and when it comes time to serving the food, a self-driving robot rolls in, smiling with cat whiskers on its face and bearing built-in trays laden with dishes.

Robot servers are getting trendy these days — and why not? They offer no-contact delivery, help with the hospitality industry’s current labor shortage crisis and are flat-out fun. The Chongs named Sushi Rosa’s service robot Jerry, who in a cheerful female voice encourages me to “Please take your food,” then says, “Enjoy!”

Jerry comes from Bear Robotics of Redwood City, which on its website notes that most restaurants lease the robots for $33 a day, making their salaries about $4 an hour for an eight-hour day. An equivalent human employee — if restaurateurs could find one — would cost $15.20 per hour in Santa Rosa.

Moreover, Jerry is efficient. Bear Robotics’ team programmed her with a map of the restaurant’s layout; kitchen staff types in a table number (or even multiple tables in a row), and the robot can make stops at each before returning to the kitchen. If a customer walks in front of her or blocks her with a chair, she automatically halts and waits. For extra flair, larger sushi orders are presented in a bamboo boat, which, when delivered by a robot, is quite the show.

As Meehyun noted, “Jerry has brought lots of smiles to customers,” enough so the family installed another robot, Bella, at their Quick Sushi in Santa Rosa.

But back to the food. I enjoyed the bento boxes for their variety of flavors packed into a single meal, and Sushi Rosa puts together a notable collection ($15.50). You start with a large bowl of typical miso soup, then things ramp up with the 16 entree choices. Select chicken or salmon teriyaki, salt grilled salmon or saba (mackerel), chicken or pork katsu, grilled spicy marinated pork, gyoza, tempura or a variety of nigiri, rolls and sashimi. You also can choose Korean bulgogi, made with a recipe handed down from Meehyun’s grandmother.

My pork katsu included two hefty (if somewhat dry) cutlets set atop shredded cabbage. My tuna sashimi included five thick-cut slabs. Rice is served in a baseball-size round. The salad is nearly appetizer-size, with a bright vinaigrette, and the box is rounded out with sliced cucumber and orange segments. It’s a lot of bang for the buck.

Vegetarians won’t go home hungry. Some two dozen sushi recipes beckon, with fillings as simple as tangy, crunchy yamagobo (pickled burdock root, $7) or as elaborate as a rainbow combo of oshinko (pickled radish), kanpyo (dried gourd), yamagobo, tamago (egg omelet), avocado and cucumber ($15). The “fresh vege” roll is particularly delicious, stuffed with crisp tempura asparagus, cucumber and avocado under a flourish of wakame (kelp seaweed, $13).

I even somewhat enjoyed an offbeat roll I thought would be too sweet, squishy and weird — the Fried Vege of nori and rice stuffed with mango, avocado, sweet potato and shiitakes, then deep-fried to give it a lacy crust ($13). I still prefer the classics, but it was fine. And best of all, there was no barbecue sauce in sight.

Carey Sweet is a Sebastopol-based food and restaurant writer. Read her restaurant reviews every other week in Sonoma Life. Contact her at carey@careysweet.com.

Sushi Rosa

Where: 515 Fourth St., Santa Rosa

When: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 - 9 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Contact: 707-843-5132, sushirosa.com

Cuisine: Japanese

Price: Moderate, entrees $14 - $30

Summary: The Chong family has debuted their sixth Sonoma County Japanese restaurant in a more upscale format than the others, but still saluting their satisfying, value-driven menu model.

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