Yes, it’s true, though hardly surprising. The Sushi Is Cool movement has made it to Iowa City, never mind that there’s narry an ocean for a thousand miles in any direction. I haven’t seen catfish or trout wrapped up with sticky rice and seaweed on menus so far, which obviously points to that size-thirteen carbon footprint of importation (from lands afar) — and yet, with deepest apologies to Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer, I say THANK YOU for refrigerated semis and jet planes and whatever else makes the trendy, downtown sushi restaurant Formosa run.
There are a few other sushi restaurants in town, but Formosa has cornered what we’ll call the Sushi Samba market: innovative cocktails and Latin-infused sushi specialties. It shares a Ped Mall corner with the Bread Garden Market (“Gucci Market,” as Billy’s parents aptly put it) and a building with the nec plus ultra modern Hotel Vetro — all of which, combined with nightly recession specials, make it a prime destination for we who seek delicious food to fit our budget and our airs.
Each table in the spacious dining area fits at least four people and four cooking bowls in case you’re tempted by the ma la which, I confess, I am not. Especially against their dynamite Dragon Roll — a familiar combination of eel, shrimp, cucumber and avocado that Formosa pulls off with particular panache. Their Tropical Rainforest roll is another hit, featuring an unlikely combination of smoked salmon, mango, cream cheese, yellow and green onion, and sunflower seeds. The seeds’ crunch works surprisingly well, rounding out those savory flavors that makes my taste buds jig.
Though it’s not exactly my cup of tea (kettle of fish?), I would be remiss if I ignored Billy’s favorite, the Tuna Tataki Roll. The white tuna, red snapper, yellow tail, cilantro and yellow and green onion combo is marinated in lime juice and topped with a black pepper tuna tataki sauce that they had mercifully dialed back on our last visit. It’s a bit spicier than what I look for, but nothing if not inventive.
To its detriment, Formosa leans a bit too heavily on cream cheese and spicy mayonnaise-based sauces in its quest for new flavors. Collectively, the two show up in seven of their eleven rolls. (!) And seriously, I know everybody’s doing it, but can’t chefs come up with better ways to signal Big Roll! Big Taste! than assembling jaw-defying pieces?
How am I supposed to eat this?
Although the service is generally quite friendly (genial, even), Formosa is a bit more obviously staffed by college students than other restaurants in the area. The service can be needlessly slow, a simple case of not paying attention. We once waited over thirty minutes between apps and rolls — but at least our waiter then was apologetic about it.
Between appetizers, four or five rolls, and a round of drinks, Formosa gets pricey fast, but they’ve also instituted a whole roster of recession drink or food specials every night of the week. Notably, Tuesday and Thursday feature $3 martinis (more than half off!), and on Sunday you land three signature rolls for the price of two. So despite some inconsistencies, Formosa is still a place to get excited about.