A New Reign

Sushi and French-Asian fusion cuisine rule in Cordova.



 

I was aware from the get-go that merely venturing into Rain Premier Sushi Bar & Bistro added a few much-needed points to my cool quotient. With its silvery curtains shining, blue spotlights rocking, and a sophisticated metallic patina infiltrating every surface, Rain offers a club-like, modern lounge atmosphere; it's the ideal scene for those who want to be both surprised and entertained when dining out. Rain is owned by Dr. Man Nguyen, and his entire family (including the co-founder of downtown Memphis' Bluefin and two Cordon Bleu-trained chefs) has banded together to showcase unique, impeccable food and modern style at their new Cordova restaurant. >>>

 

At first, I was curious about Rain due to two factors: its insouciant backwards-R logo and the head-spinning variety of food that's available there. I wondered if this restaurant could pull off the feat of offering so many different kinds of sushi with a full French-Asian bistro-style menu, and somehow, it clicked. So many creative dishes are available at Rain, and patrons – sushi lovers or those not quite there yet – can pick and choose their meals to satisfying effect.

My first visit for a late lunch on a Friday afternoon was a whirlwind of sensation. The flavors were balanced and inventive, and a keen understanding of texture and presentation was apparent. After parsing the detailed, two-page sushi menu, I took the easy way out and decided to try the Sushi Starter. This included four pieces of nigiri – select pieces of raw fish perched on small, tight bundles of rice – and the ubiquitous California roll. If a sushi chef can take this classic and make it something to be appreciated instead of dismissed as "beginner" sushi, that's impressive. He nailed it, and because of this, I made a mental note to branch out and sample some of the more exotic rolls next time at dinner. The nigiri on the Sushi Starter featured tuna, yellowtail, shrimp, and fresh salmon, and each jewel-like piece appeared succulent and bright. At the perfect temperature and constructed so well that it was easy to pick up and enjoy in one generous bite, this was the freshest and most meticulously prepared sushi I've tried in a while. We also opted for inari, which is sweet tofu and rice sushi, a couple of sweet egg omelet pieces, and a vegetable roll with cream cheese. Even though figuring out what we wanted took a little extra time, it's a good thing that Rain's sushi menu is so expansive, with a selection of raw nigiri, cooked nigiri, and sashimi, along with vegetarian, both cooked and raw, and even fried rolls.

After the sushi, we were ready to find out if the rest of Rain's offerings were just as stellar. The bistro menu is very comprehensive and features appetizers, soups, salads, entrées, and desserts. First, we selected the Rain salad, romaine with bacon, tomato, red onion, candied pecans, and shaved parmesan, and also the red-wine poached Asian pear salad, which boasts mixed greens, pecans, blue cheese, and a citrus vinaigrette. The salads were crisp and pretty with careful attention paid to color and presentation. Our first choice for soup, the mushroom bisque, was not available, so we chose spring pea.Accented with basil oil and a few jaunty fried peas, its concentrated green pea flavor sang. I also had to try the spicy tuna pizza. Fair warning: I love spicy food, and this had even more of a kick than I'm used to; however, I interpreted the spicy heat as a dare and jumped right in to prove myself. The pizza's combination of hot sriracha sauce, nori strips, sweet mayonnaise, and raw ahi tuna on a thin crust looked as striking as an abstract painting. It would be great as an appetizer to be shared, but the flavors might be a bit strong for it to function as an entrée.

A light dessert of sorbet provided the ideal end to our lunch. The presentation was inspired: sorbets at Rain are served in scooped-out fruit balanced on a mound of fine sanding sugar. The orange sorbet was layered in flavor without the one-note sherbet blandness; the pina coloda sorbet, served in a halved pineapple, was sweet and coconut-y without being cloying.

Maybe, just possibly, we over-ordered at lunch. That's something to remember about Rain: you'll want to try everything. I hate to advise anyone to hold back, because honestly, how often do we really savor what we eat, especially during the hurried, workaday affair that most of us call lunch? My palate didn't experience even a moment of boredom at Rain, and this made my feast of a lunch well worth the time and the expense.

I imagined that stopping by Rain for dinner on a Friday night would be quite an experience, and it was. The atmosphere was crackling with a celebratory, social vibe, and the lights were dramatic and low. I chose to bring a diner from the eat-to-live camp along in order to best complement my live-to-eat propensities. We were ready to test my theory that Rain's vast, imaginative menu offers options that will impress anyone and everyone.

We opted for two appetizers: the summer roll and the jumbo lump crabcakes. Stuffed with shrimp, paté, vermicelli, mint, and cilantro, the summer rolls were cold, fresh, and light, and long after the rolls were history, we were still spooning up and exclaiming over the sweet hoisin peanut dipping sauce that accompanied them. The generously-sized crab cakes were complemented by a red pepper-garlic cream sauce and tomato-avocado relish, both of which were displayed with a flourish on the plate. Going in divergent directions for our entrées, my companion chose the Frenched pork chop with ratatouille and mushroom risotto, and I just wanted more sushi. We enjoyed the plump, thick, and tender pork chop, but sadly, we found both side dishes much too salty and could not get past that impression. I chose two rolls: a lobster, cucumber, and shrimp roll, and the Twister, a fried roll, which was a concept that alternately alarmed me and piqued my interest. It turned out to be kani kama, cream cheese, and rice rolled in seaweed and then surrounded by warm tempura. Extra spicy tuna and crab along with eel sauce on top made this roll even more extravagant.

We went all out when it came to dessert. The molten chocolate cake is described as dark chocolate decadence in the middle of a chocolate cake cylinder, and the flavors were as rich and concentrated as promised. Vanilla gelato was a nice addition to this dish, and really, four people could have shared it, but why cause a fight?

My experience at Rain was notable due to the servers' pride in the food. It was obvious that they have tried many items on the menu, and all of their recommendations were solid. Everyone who works at Rain seems to feel a genuine excitement about this restaurant, and it shows.

Rain's innocuous location at the corner of a row of shops in Cordova and plain outward appearance did not hint at the intricate renovation of the space inside the restaurant. After I took in how well the space was decorated and divided, I rested my eyes on the modernized Gustav Klimt-style paintings and checked out the neon-bright fish swimming in a wide tank behind our table. I found the best vantage point of all to be the roomy upholstered chairs circling smallish tables in the middle of the restaurant, but sitting at the small two-top tables set against the wall offers more intimacy. Key pieces from the family's collection of vases and art work well in the space and add to the atmosphere without being too intrusive. I liked the subtle artisan touches, including the screen of wooden waves posted at the front door, the stylized swish of a hostess stand constructed by Rain's bar manager, and a looming fountain. Overall, the idea behind the décor matches the viewpoint I gleaned from Rain's riotous menu: Expertly combining disparate items makes for a more compelling whole.

I have to root for a spot like Rain Premier Sushi Bar & Bistro. Not only did it open in the midst of our current downturn, but it's been steadily attracting diners from all over the city. So much care has been put into making the restaurant exactly the place the Nguyens dreamed it should be, and I'm thrilled to say that in terms of cuisine, atmosphere, and of course, the all-important cool factor, the family behind Rain has gotten every last detail exactly right.

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