A bottle of Ginjo sake is a great way to begin the evening. (Photo: Staff)

This column is about the experience of food in Chattanooga. I will take people out for dinner and lunch dates at various restaurants in the Chattanooga region. It is not meant to be a review per se, but an account of a one-time experience at a restaurant. Your mileage may vary depending upon your expectations.

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This week, I celebrated my 33rd birthday with a quiet dinner at Totto Sushi & Grill on Frazier Avenue. Surprisingly, it’s been about three years since I’d visited Totto for a meal, and back then it was much different. The restaurant has gone through a renovation in the past year and the new layout offers a completely different restaurant than what I remember. I also looked back at previous articles to see if I made a terrible “Wizard of Oz” reference and I, thankfully, did not. Whew! It’s not even spelled the same way as Dorothy’s dog.

Once again, Monica was my date, but I’m booking my dining calendar in advance with reader dates for the foreseeable future, so email me if you want to take me someplace interesting and get in on this sweet column action. Monica also wanted readers to know that she is “tired of going on dates, but not in a bitchy way.” Just so you know.

We arrived on the very popular half-price sushi roll night (each of the house specialty rolls are half-price). The crowd was already lining up for tables, but we managed to snag a couple of seats at the bar before anybody told us we couldn’t. The bar is more my style anyway, what with the close proximity to booze and entertainment.

Atmosphere/service
Totto is best-known for its popular all-you-can-eat sushi buffet during lunch hours for $13.95. The dinner half-price sushi rolls are available on Tuesday and Sunday only. A list of other daily specials is here.

On this night, the bar was run by Vanessa. She looked like a 1950s pin-up girl and was playful and funny throughout the night. Even funnier were the two guys who sat next to us discussing other restaurants in Chattanooga. One of the men, a transplant from Alabama, had possibly the most Southern accent I’ve ever heard. It was wonderful.

Totto’s renovations helped add some much-needed dining space, including an outdoor patio and more variation in elevation with the seating. The sightlines are better throughout and the restaurant feels much more upscale than it did before. We started our evening-my birthday soirĂ©e-with a bottle of cold Ginjo sake: delicate, floral and fruity. Later, we ordered a glass of house chardonnay because, again, it was birthday and I wanted to be extra-fancy.

Sushi
I’m not the type of person who could eat sushi every day. I enjoy it, on occasion, but it’s not my go-to comfort food, like it is with some of my friends. I know several people who eat sushi as their primary source of sustenance. Here are my sushi preferences: big flavor, spicy, maybe a little crunch and not swimming in sauce. That’s it. If it’s not busy, I usually just suggest to the chef a budget and let them bring me whatever they want to make.We didn’t venture into nigiri (raw protein with rice) or sashimi (just the raw protein) on this visit, although Totto serves both.

Half-price sushi rolls are only available without substitutions. That means you can’t ask for an item to be added OR omitted. The rolls are served as they are listed on the menu. The end. Done.

Unfortunately, Monica is a broken person and highly allergic to avocados. Nearly all the rolls contain avocados, so we had to pay full price. Vanessa wouldn’t even ask the sushi chefs to consider. That’s how serious the “no substitutions” rule gets at Totto.

I am not a broken person, so I ordered Tiger and Ninja rolls. Monica had the Las Vegas and Fried Bagel rolls without avocado.

The Tiger roll contains crab, cucumber, (deadly) avocado, fried shrimp, spicy tuna, more (deadly) avocado on top and eel sauce. This is usually one of my favorite roll variations, and Totto’s version didn’t disappoint. There’s a little crunch, a little spice and a whole lot of sweetness from the eel sauce. Likewise, the Ninja roll is also crunchy with soft-shell crab, cucumber, (deadly) avocado, masago (fish roe), fried shrimp, eel sauce and spicy mayo. This might be my favorite roll of the two. It’s not traditional by any stretch, but it’s absolutely delicious.

Monica was giddy when I suggested we order sushi for my birthday dinner. “I’d been craving it for a week even before you mentioned it,” she told me. With her avocado allergy, she has to be extremely careful about which rolls to order. (Note: She’s also no fun at guacamole parties.) The two rolls she ordered were essentially the same roll with only slight variations. A Las Vegas roll contains salmon, cream cheese, spicy mayo and eel sauce. The Fried Bagel roll is smoked salmon, cream cheese, spicy mayo and eel sauce. Both rolls are deep-fried. Despite the lacking avocado, the rolls were still very good.

Monica and I ate, drank and had a great time at Totto. Two rolls is enough food to make me want to go immediately to sleep following the meal. We did not notify the staff that it was my birthday, but Totto doesn’t seem like the type of restaurant where the employees would bring out a goofy hat and sing me a song. Plus, there was no room in our tanks for dessert, anyway.

Would we go back?
Totto is great. The half-price rolls are an absolute steal if you are OK with no substitutions. I also highly recommend the sushi buffet. Just be sure you’re not doing anything too important in the afternoon after you gorge yourself. We’ll definitely be coming back soon.

The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, notNooga.comor its employees.

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