I like to think of dining as a learning experience. Each time I take a seat in a restaurant I hope to discover something new. Sometimes it’s a new cooking style, sauce or preparation, but sometimes I learn something about myself. At Sealevel City Gourmet I learned I’m not quite ready to be a full vegetarian; luckily they provide enough to fully satisfy omnivores, too.
Sealevel specializes primarily in vegetarian and vegan meals, with a good bit of sushi and seafood on the menu. For health reasons, I’ve meant to move toward more vegetarian meals, though I’ve no intention of giving up meat entirely. Still, even with so many vegan options, I found myself drawn to the sushi like a moth to flame.
Thanks to having the foresight to bring a vegetarian friend, I got to sample a wider variety of foods than I otherwise might have chosen for myself. And in doing so, I gained a better picture of what Sealevel City Gourmet has to offer.
The blackeyed-pea hummus made for a fun start. Richer, thicker and darker than the chickpea variety, it took on a grittier texture but was otherwise quite similar with a garlicky flavor. The soft pita bread tasted delicious, owing mostly to its freshness.
Moving on to a pair of tacos, they came served on hot, fresh tortillas; each a bit too substantial to tackle without picking at it with a fork first. The cheesy shrimp and green chile taco is a minor masterpiece. Not a single shrimp came over or undercooked (and there were a lot of them—I had to eat six before I could close the taco). The green chiles lent just the right hint of spice without ever taking away from the briny shrimp.
Sticking to tacos, I tried a vegetarian variety: BBQ tofu and eggplant. The sauce was marvelous, with hints of smoke and tangy spiciness. Yet, the soft texture of the tofu and eggplant kept me longing for the tougher flesh of chicken. Still, it’s a great combination of flavors and one I highly recommend.
On the sushi menu, the Redneck Roll beckoned my call. Unfamiliar with the term, I felt daring enough to sample without asking. Turns out it is a standard sushi roll made with the fried fish of the day; in this case, wahoo. The little bit of grease added to the experience, and made the white fish taste richer and fuller. The crunch inside the roll also was rather satisfying.
Sealevel won with originality by offering musubi, a Hawaiian-style of sushi. The fish and rice come wrapped in nori as though it were a seaweed burrito. I tried two with mixed results. First, let me say, I suspect there is a way to eat musubi without making a mess. I simply haven’t discovered it. While musubi does look a bit like a green burrito, both ends are open, allowing the rice and fish to spill out the bottom.
The smoked salmon disappointed only because I was expecting pieces of fish. Instead, it came with Sealevel’s signature smoked-salmon spread. I’ve never been a fan of cream cheese in sushi because I find it cloying and overpowering, often dominating the texture of whatever it touches. The teriyaki fish musubi, on the other hand, triumphed. The white fish took on the flavor of the sauce like a white canvas takes paint. The teriyaki sauce didn’t suffer from saltiness. The sweetened soy sauce permeated the wrap and imbued an even flavor throughout. The perfectly cooked rice made the dish easy to enjoy.
For vegetarians, the ginger beancurd pita melt offered a substantial open-faced sandwich. The sandwich’s tofu, bean sprouts, tzatziki sauce and cheese married in a flavorful cacophony. Again, my preferences on texture doesn’t exactly endear tofu or tzatziki sauce, but the elegant undercurrent of ginger, one of my all-time favorite flavors, really made the dish pop.
I finished with a soft-shell crab slider. There’s something I love about three inches of fried crab leg sticking out of a tiny roll. The meat was golden and kept its signature sweetness. Just the right bit of crispiness made it a nice little ending to a substantial meal.
Diners should not sleep on Sealevel’s side items either. Their homemade chips, alternately crunchy and chewy, provide a little something for everyone. And the hushpuppies are amongst the best in town. I’m holding off on crowning them the winner until I can taste them side by side with Rx’s, but Sealevel is definitely in the hunt on this one.
Owned by Chef Nikki Spears, best known as the namesake of local restaurant chain Nikki’s Sushi, Sealevel is a bit of a Spartan affair. Little artwork adorns unpleasantly green walls. Still, there’s an odd beauty in it; somehow it suggests that the real work went into the food. Spears herself, bedecked in pigtails, can be seen running back and forth behind the line, preparing multiple dishes.
Service was excellent, so folks should prepare to tip well. The staff proved quite knowledgeable about the menu, and very capable of steering diners toward or away from dishes based on dietary preferences and restrictions. The vegetarian/vegan theme isn’t just a gimmick at Sealevel. It is treated like a philosophy, and they want their diners to get what they expect.
I may not be ready to give up on meat just yet, but a few more meals at Sealevel City Gourmet may sway me.
Sealevel City Gourmet
1015 S. Kerr Avenue
Mon.-Sun., 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Thurs-Sat., 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Price: $$ ($10-$30)
Bottom line: Omnivores will adore the vegan and vegetarian restaurant most assuredly.