When it comes to sushi, freshness is synonymous with quality. But apart from the basic fact that anything less than the freshest cut of yellowtail tuna would be tantamount to travesty, discerning the culinary differences between sushi joints can be a matter of painstaking subtlety, sometimes coming down to what kind of pickled ginger is used: white or pink. (The white stuff is undyed and theoretically better.) Atmosphere, location, service, and sentimentality are all incidental considerations, subsumed under the overarching concern that the special was plucked from the water that selfsame day. In this regard, the old biblical maxim holds pat: Cleanliness, an immediate byproduct of freshness, is next to godliness.

There is certainly plenty of godliness going 'round at Sanmi Sushi. Tucked away most discreetly on the Elliott Bay Marina, just a short jog from the Magnolia Bridge, this clean and well-lighted place serves delicate portions of the finest and freshest Japanese food available in all of Seattle. The food is preternaturally delicious. Of course, once quality has been indubitably established, the second question on anyone's lips when it comes to sushi is (to quote Marge Gunderson in Fargo), "And is it reasonable?" If, by definition, one is asking whether the restaurant in question strikes an admirable equilibrium between cost and content, I can only answer that it is possible for two people to leave Sanmi both ecstatically pleased and sated for around $50. In culinary terms, and in keeping with the religious theme, this is a miracle on the order of camels and eyes of needles.

Unless you are dining with a very large group (in which case you might want to reserve one of the restaurant's tatami rooms), there is no reason not to enjoy Sanmi's wares from the restaurant's long, spacious sushi bar. From this vantage point, you can perceive firsthand the mastery that ensues when you order any of the menu's offerings from owner and head chef Misao Sanmi. Misao has been preparing sushi for 47 years; he boasts a coveted blowfish license (service of this potentially lethal fish is forbidden in the United States). After owning restaurants in Japan as well as working in various prime sushi establishments around town, Misao and his wife, Yukiko, opened Sanmi in 1995.

It's good to start slow at Sanmi, the better to sample a full array of dishes before busting your gut on a big, tasty roll. I usually kick things off with a small bowl of taco sunomono ($6.50), a simple salad composed of fresh octopus, cucumber, and seaweed sprinkled with a mild vinegar sauce. From here, it's felicitous to move directly to the nigiri menu (orders come in two pieces and range from $3.50 to $6). It's hard to go wrong, though you would be amiss to skip out on a few of Sanmi's finer items. The toro, or fatty tuna, is heavenly--a delicate, buttery cut of fish that undergoes multiple flavor transformations as it melts in your mouth. The unagi (freshwater eel) is equally stunning, coated lightly in a basic sauce of wine, sake, and soy. Misao's preparations of hamachi (yellowtail) and maguro (standard tuna) are further fantastic variations on the tuna theme. And while I don't normally eat salmon, at Sanmi I do: It practically glows red, it's so fresh.

There are also a number of excellent, hearty rolls to be had. (Be careful: They're mighty big.) The best of the bunch are the Sanmi Roll (eel, shrimp, egg, tobiko, and cucumber; $7), the Futomaki Roll (egg, shiitake mushroom, kampyo, cucumber, and tobiko; $5.50), and finally, the wildly delectable Marina Roll (shrimp tempura; $6). Also available are a number of appetizers and cooked entrées, ranging in price from $3.50 (spinach salad) to $19 (black cod kasuzuke). Honestly, I've never made it this far, always filling up with nigiri and rolls and perhaps a small bowl of miso ($1.50) or a plate of edamame ($4.50) or wonderful grilled squid ($5.50) on the side. However, I have sampled enough at Sanmi to say with confidence that, no matter what it is, it's got to be good.

Sanmi Sushi

2601 W Marina Place, Suite S (Magnolia), 283-9978.

Lunch Tues-Fri 11:30 am-1:45 pm; dinner Tues-Thurs 5:30-9:30 pm, Fri-Sat 5:30-10 pm, Sun 5-9 pm; closed Mondays. $$

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-$20; $$$ = $20 and up

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