At Sushi on the Square, those in the know begin the night with bottles of Kirin, Sapporo, and Asahi, sided by bowls of edamame. The strong, smooth Japanese lagers are easy-drinking foils for the salty steamed soybeans, and while it tickles the same taste buds, the combination is a good deal more worldly than Bud Light and pretzels. And even beyond the cool factor, it's clear that the ritual of edamame eating tugging the fibrous green pods between the teeth to disgorge the tender beans, then flinging the spent pods into a common bowl breaks down barriers and fosters a friendly sense of fun.
Not that the diners, a good-looking crowd of predominantly young people, in nuzzling twosomes and boisterous knots, are necessarily thinking about all this as they nosh away. More likely, they are pondering what types of sushi or sashimi to order next from the restaurant's lengthy menu.
The options, everything from appetizers of dainty hosomaki sushi to entire dinners of tuna and yellowtail sashimi, are extensive. While the à la carte nigiri sushi selection (bits of cooked or raw fish or seafood, bound to a pad of rice with a slender band of nori) is pretty much the traditional assortment of eel, tuna, clam, conch, and the like, there are a few less usual vegetarian options, including asparagus, daikon sprouts, and shiitake mushroom sushi. When it comes to the bite-sized rolled hosomaki, though, tradition flies out the door, replaced by frankly playful combinations of tastes and textures, often with amusingly apt monikers. There's the smooth, almost creamy Mexican roll, for instance, with shrimp, avocado, and not-too-spicy hot sauce; the New Orleans, with shrimp, crunchy red pepper, and Cajun mayonnaise; and the Hot Bahama, with crisply fried conch, mango, and smelt roe with hot sauce -- all fresh, flavorful, and artfully arranged on rectangular stoneware plates, beside hillocks of powerful wasabi and slices of unusually pungent pickled ginger.
Even more exuberant in their interplay of tastes are the giant futomaki rolls especially the succulent Shuhei, stuffed with tuna, smoked salmon, crab stick, layered egg, and cucumber; and the gorgeous Shaker Square, with tempura shrimp, crab salad, avocado, and spicy mayonnaise, topped with fragrant slices of crisped eel and dollops of colorful smelt roe.
Beyond sushi itself, a listing of sushi bar appetizers holds other enticing-sounding dishes, ranging from Negi Hama Kobachi (chopped fresh yellowtail with scallions and minty ooba leaf in ponzu sauce) to Maguro-Kai Zukuri (seared tuna and fresh scallops with wasabi cream sauce). We splurged on the pricey Kaki Mushi: four stupendously large sake-poached oysters, beautifully presented on a small stoneware platter, where they rested against a diminutive mountain of white daikon, red cabbage, and orange carrot threads, sided by a spicy, full-bodied cocktail sauce. But while the oysters were plump and fresh, they were surprisingly bland, lacking both the brisk, briny bouquet of the ocean and the richness of sake. It was one of the few dishes that disappointed.
While it would be easy to make an entire meal from sushi-bar creations, that would be a mistake. Our non-sushi starters included some true delights, including the tender frog legs, sautéed in a tongue-tingling blend of sake, hot pepper, and garlic; and fried wasabi dumplings, with a delicately crisped exterior enveloping a moist, wasabi-tinged chicken filling. Fat, crescent-shaped gyoza, stuffed with ground beef and vegetables, were dense and moist, if rather pedestrian. But next time, we'll skip the skewered yakitori, with its too-dry sesame-coated chicken settled in a pool of mirin-spiked soy sauce.
This upscale neighborhood hangout on Shaker Square is the latest project for longtime restaurateur Hiroshi Tsuji, and it's a handsome, energetic spot, carefully crafted with contemporary Asian flair. Extraneous ornamentation has been kept to a minimum, so that diners' eyes are naturally drawn to the gently curved sushi bar and its free-form dropped ceiling, which has been painted an earthy umber. An interplay of textures -- coarse natural stone, sleek woodwork, roughly glazed plates and bowls, and smooth, black faux-granite tabletops -- provide both visual and tactile stimulation. On the other hand, the hard surfaces do little to muffle sound, and the noise level can become distracting. Closely spaced tables and narrow aisles contribute to the sense of bustle. This isn't so bad if you plan to spend your evening laughing over edamame and beer. However, for those hoping to conduct business or enjoy an intimate tête-à-tête, the room is less suitable, at least during weekend evenings.
Tsuji can probably lay legitimate claim to introducing sushi to the Cleveland market, through his former restaurant Shujiro as well as at his present, popular Shuhei. So it is no surprise that the restaurant's sushi and sashimi offerings are impeccable. But what is a surprise -- and a happy one at that -- are the fusion-style entrées, dishes like lamb chops in garlic sauce, grilled rib eye with a garlic-mustard-cream sauce, and stir-fried veal with a tamari reduction. Slices of juicy grilled pork tenderloin, fanned out on a flavor-absorbing bed of shredded potato and stroked with an understated cranberry-ginger reduction, were a knockout. Grilled skirt steak, marinated in pineapple and Oriental spices, practically dissolved on the tongue. And a thick filet of grilled Norwegian salmon nearly achieved perfection, incredibly moist and bursting with flavor beneath a subtle shiitake mushroom sauce. Only the unboned, air-dried Long Island duck left us unimpressed. Although its texture was suitably crisp and chewy, and the flavor was intense (seductively paired with a fruity orange-and-mango salsa on the side), picking the plentiful bones soon became a chore. But, in every case, presentation was consistently artistic: Each entrée, along with a mound of warm, crunchy bean sprouts and a buttery mix of luscious stir-fried vegetables, was served on a rectangular platter in tidy little groupings, as if arranged inside a bento box.
Other entrées -- tempura, teriyaki, and a handful of noodle dishes -- were less novel, but still worth exploring. Shrimp tempura, for instance, was a towering, golden temple of large crustaceans, whole green beans, a thick onion slice, a sweet potato plank, and a broccoli bouquet, all dipped in a light batter and crisply fried. The flavors were fresh, the textures exciting, and the serving ample, although the coating was slightly greasy. But a massive tangle of sautéed buckwheat noodles, studded with colorful stir-fried vegetables, was well seasoned, savory, and not a bit oily. Small tossed salads with a choice of dressings (try the complex spicy-sesame) accompany all main courses.
Traditionally, Japanese desserts are nothing more than fresh fruit, but Tsuji apparently realizes that's not enough to satisfy the typical American's sugar jones. Thus, diners will find several fancy, rich, above-average tortes on each night's dessert list, as well as a more fitting ending of fresh pineapple and berries, accompanied by half-orbs of kiwi-colored green-tea ice cream, swathed in sweet, pleasantly gummy rice wrappers.
After dinner, a stroll around the revitalized Shaker Square makes a healthful digestive, especially on a soft spring evening. If the timing is right, you may catch a pink-and-gold sunset behind the square's western quadrants. Or later, there may be an expansive cobalt sky set off with stars. But you won't soon forget that behind you, inside the restaurant, black-garbed hipsters are still moving like kinetic sculptures, drinking, eating, and having fun.
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