When it comes to sushi survivors, Old City's Kisso is impressive. Chef-owner Alex Park has been serving up superb raw-fish artistry there for 21 years, which would be an admirably long run for any restaurant. But Park has done so on an out-of-the-way corner at Fourth and Race Streets, tucked behind the U.S. Mint and beside a major construction project, with zero promotion (not even a proper website), and such a low-key presence that I will admit I have occasionally forgotten to think of it as one of Philly's better sushi options. A memorable recent lunch, though, reminded me why that was my mistake. With cool jazz floating through the serenely minimalist orange box of this pleasant BYOB, I was delighted by both the quality of the fish and the subtle wrinkles that put Park's personal stamp on every dish.
A colorful starter called "Music Box" brought little bundles of sweet king crab over warm rice touched with yuzu mayonnaise wrapped inside pink and green soy paper wrappers. They were two perfect bites of subtly contrasting temperatures and flavors that evoked a harmony the curious name was intended to evoke.
The star of my lunch, though, was the "chef's special dub bop," Park's artful twist on hwe dup bap, a Korean rice dish topped with spicy raw fish that is a fresh sashimi variation on bibimbop. Though he created this dish years ago, it is not so different in concept from the big poke trend that has finally taken off on the East Coast.
Park's take on seasoned rice topped with diced raw fish is so intricately colored and full of minute textural contrasts it's hard not to be thrilled by every bite. Meaty bits of tuna, buttery escolar, rich salmon, and fleshy striped bass bump up against creamy chunks of avocado, the crunch of tiny rice puffs, and the pop-pop of two kinds of fish roe: salty orange tobiko and sweeter red smelt eggs. Add in the unexpected crunch of sour cucumbers pickled to a deep purple hue in beet juice, shaved nori ribbons, a homemade ponzu smoky with the depth of bonito stock, and a spicy sauce that provides a punchy, elegant heat without getting heavy-handed (none of that ubiquitous spicy mayo, thank you). I found my chopsticks hunting across the nearly empty bowl for every last grain of flavorful rice — and another reason to return to this overlooked gem for lunch again soon.
— Craig LaBan