Nigiri Up North 

Ogden's Tona Sushi is hitting all the right notes.

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Back in 2008, I wrote a brief paragraph about Ogden's Tona Sushi Bar and Grill, within the context of a larger article about sushi. I'd visited the restaurant and, frankly, wasn't too impressed, so I decided not to publish a complete review of it. Contrary to what many might think about restaurant critics, I don't go out looking to bash restaurants. Often, if I'm not enthusiastic about a particular eatery—especially one that someone might have sunk their life savings into—I just move on and don't review it, hoping it might improve.

That was the case with Tona. When I first visited, either they were having a bad day, or I was. Fast-forward to May 2016, and I have to say that whatever my thoughts were in the past, the place is quickly becoming one of my favorite sushi spots. Owners Tony Chen and Tina Yu (Tony + Tina = Tona) and their staff seem to be firing on all cylinders, even on very busy nights when the joint is packed (which is often).

We were fortunate on a recent Thursday night to find a couple of empty seats at the bar. Virtually all of the tables in both dining rooms were occupied, and the place was bustling. It has clearly become a favorite eatery of Ogdenites. A quick perusal of the specials was promising; there were fish options that I rarely, if ever, see on sushi menus, along with the standards.

Under the tapas section of the menu, in addition to predictable offerings like edamame ($5.75), gyoza ($6.50), agedashi tofu ($5.50) and vegetable tempura ($6.50), there are more innovative dishes like seared ahi tuna with pineapple, chili-garlic sauce and jalapeño, or a choice of grilled sake or hamachi kama (salmon or yellowtail collar) with ponzu soy ($9.75). Having enjoyed the hamachi kama on a previous visit, this time we opted for Tona's saba grill ($5), which is two small pieces of skin-on, lightly salted mackerel—a strongly flavored, oily fish that not everyone loves—grilled and served with a complex basil and sweet vinegar-soy sauce. On the plate were also pickled carrot, broccoli, micro-greens and shredded red cabbage. This delectable tapa was quite a steal—in a restaurant such as Nobu, you'd probably pay $18 or more for the same thing. We also enjoyed Tona's take on the good old American onion ring, breaded in panko crumbs with just a hint of coconut, deep-fried until crispy and golden, and served with a bold red chili-garlic sauce ($5).

If you have kids who aren't into eating sushi yet, I recommend ordering the panko pork ($6) for them. It's panko-breaded, schnitzel-style boneless pork strips, fried and served with traditional Japanese barbecue sauce. Any kids who'll eat chicken tenders will surely enjoy this dish with a bowl of steamed rice ($1.50).

There's a small, but well-conceived beverage list which includes chilled sake by the bottle ($14-$17), hot sake, beer (including Roosters' Niner Bock dopplebock-style) and a handful of red and white wines. We found Parducci Pinot Gris ($5.75 per glass/$26 per bottle) to be a versatile foil for a wide range of Tona's dishes.

I'm always tempted by "chef's choice" nigiri and sashimi samplers, but usually wind up disappointed when I discover, predictably, that the chef has selected the cheapest cuts. Still, priced at only $12, you might want to take a chance on Tona's six-piece nigiri sushi sampler. We, however, ordered à la carte, and were especially enthusiastic about finding some not-so-usual suspects on the nigiri/sashimi menu.

For example, branzino (Mediterranean sea bass) was available as a nigiri choice ($5.25). I'd never eaten branzino raw before, and it was delightful. Nigiri is served, as is true at most sushi restaurants, as two pieces per order. Surprisingly, I noticed that the nigiri was not served with soy and wasabi (although there are small pots of soy on the table). I suspect that's because most sushi chefs cringe when they see American customers blending soy and wasabi into an incendiary sauce that obliterates the subtle flavors of nigiri and sashimi. So, kudos to Tona's sushi chefs—about half of whom are women, by the way—for standing their ground.

Other excellent nigiri options I'd recommend include hamachi toro (yellowtail belly), black cod (lightly torched sablefish), sake toro (salmon belly with thin-sliced lemon) and especially the scallop nigiri ($5.50), wherein I discovered I like scallops raw much more than I do cooked. That's particularly true of Tona's scallop nigiri, which is kissed every-so-lightly with a dollop of wonderful tomatillo and chili-citrus paste.

I rarely see cobia (aka black kingfish, lemonfish, black salmon, crabeater, etc.)—a white-flesh, firm-textured fish—at sushi bars, so I was quick to order the Smokin' Hot Cobia roll ($9.50). The cobia is very lightly smoked and served maki-style with avocado, fennel, Thai chilies, paper-thin orange slices, citrus-soy sauce, black and white sesame seeds, and with taro chips and garlicky deep-fried basil leafs alongside. The citrus helps balance the heat from the chilies and, overall, this is one of the best rolls I've eaten in ages—plus, it's a real bargain at under $10.

Economical pricing, a vibrant ambiance, outstanding service (from chefs and servers) and truly excellent sushi guarantee that I won't make the mistake of staying away for another eight years. I'm now a team Tona fan.

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