Oslo's been back since January, after a yearlong shutdown that deprived downtown of its first sushi joint. (The attached cellar nightclub reopened earlier, in October 2007.)
Two of the new owners, Katalia and Roberto Lemos, worked under the old regime, as bartender and occasional DJ, respectively, so they knew what had made Oslo click so resoundingly with young techno-and-raw-fish aficionados in its first life, 2004-2006. They joined forces with Lumpai Rossbach, former owner of the Royal Thai Café in Royal Oak, who now heads the kitchen.
That means that, nowadays, Oslo patrons can choose between sushi and a longish list of superior Thai dishes; the sushi is sliced and rolled by Korean-born John Riney.
Now, sushi is finger food, and in Thailand folks eat with a fork and spoon (the fork nudges the food onto the spoon). But the only implements on the table at Oslo are chopsticks. In the one rice dish I ordered, the rice wasn't sticky enough to work well with chopsticks. What's more, the sticks are unfortunately the one-off, throwaway kind that are helping, in their billions, to deplete the world's forests. I like chopsticks, authentic to the culture or no; if you're going to eat out, might as well make it interesting. But how about investing in some real sticks, new owners?
I didn't try Oslo's Pad Thai, but the chef does other standards very well. Tom kha, the soup with coconut milk and chicken, is both creamy and salty, with generous chunks of chicken. Drunken noodles are peppery yet luscious, the noodles fat and slippery, with a fold-in garnish of fresh basil leaves. I asked for medium-rare tuna with the noodles, but the slices were too thin to cook that subtly. (You can ask for any meat for $11; $2 extra for seafood.)
Equally delicious was a "signature" dish called simply "Oslo Udon Noodles." Chicken and shrimp and the usual vegetables join wide noodles of a pleasing firmness in a faintly sweet and certainly hot garlic sauce. Almost all the signatures feature garlic, and none coconut milk, so now you know chef Rossbach's tastes.
Appetizers include the usual spring and shrimp rolls, satay, tofu todd. We tried instead a karee puff that seemed very Indian (one of the three cuisines that Thai is based on). It's eight puffy pastry half-moons, stuffed with curry potatoes and fried. Fantastic — how could fried dough redolent of French fries not be? Other Indian-influenced dishes are on the curry list — red, green, yellow, panang and masaman curries — incorporating peanuts or coconut milk or both.
Another appetizer, steamed dumplings in a sweet garlic sauce, was OK but bland; next time I'd order gyoza, Japanese potstickers, instead, to get the benefit of frying (and fresh garlic).
Very popular in Thailand, I discovered on Wikipedia, is sukiyaki, which has little in common with the original Japanese sukiyaki; it's more like a Chinese hot pot, where the ingredients are cooked in broth at the table. Oslo's "suki yaki," though, is apparently not related to either one; it's just some sautéed vegetables and glass noodles, OK but not to reorder.
As for the Japanese menu, it includes miso, edamame, salads and tempura as well as sushi, nigiri and sashimi. The sushi rolls feature lots of avocado, an L.A. innovation that adds a desirable creamy texture if you're not using a fatty tuna.
Sometimes it's interesting to figure out why certain combos are named as they are. Why is the shrimp-avocado-cream cheese roll called "New York" and the tuna-smoked salmon-cream cheese-avocado-tobiko (flying fish roe) "Detroit"? Shouldn't New York be smoked salmon? Shouldn't Detroit be a coney?
In any case, the rolls are generous and moderately priced. If you seek eel, as I do, look in the "special rolls" section, where you'll also find kiwi, soft-shell crab, scallops and asparagus. Or go all the way and get unaju, nothing but grilled eel piled over sushi rice. Somehow I missed this one, but next time I'll order it and wriggle with delight.
The "Sashimi Lover" is a good deal at $17, an elegantly styled assortment of 12 pieces of tuna, salmon, octopus, shrimp and more, some in fanciful shapes such as a bishop's miter, arranged over stark white shredded radish.
The reincarnate Oslo retains its unusual dead-black decor, but the narrow 20-foot-by-80-foot space doesn't feel claustrophobic. Cloth napkins and the elegant presentation of the Japanese dishes help to make the place feel like a night out, while still retaining a young and friendly vibe.
DJs at Oslo's downstairs club play techno, house and hip hop. This weekend, the place will be jammed for the Electronic Music Festival.
And despite the name, there's still nothing Norwegian on the menu except smoked salmon. Which is enough.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.