Unless one happens to be a bird, it's not a phrase designed to get the digestive juices flowing. Of course, Ruth Reichl, former restaurant critic of The New York Times, once ate lard-fried worms. And Alison Cook, of Houston Sidewalk, admits she gulped down fish eyeballs in Thailand. With such examples in mind, how could I turn down a plate of spider maki at Shuhei Hibachi, a Japanese steakhouse and sushi bar that opened last April in suburban Solon?
Besides, it isn't really a spider. It's a soft-shelled crab: batter-dipped, deep-fried, and stretched out across a field of sushi rice, then rolled up with a crunchy lettuce leaf and spicy mayonnaise before being sliced into eight thick rounds. All eight of the crab's husky legs stick out of the final slice, making it look as though a big, fat spider has, indeed, been wrapped up inside it. But hey, you just don't have to eat that piece, I told myself.
Thus was I sitting at the Solon sushi bar, grinding my way through a portion of spider maki. Out of deference to the good folks who have told me they love it, I will simply say that spider maki must be an acquired taste. Despite its name, the crab's intact shell wasn't all that soft, and it took plenty of hot sake and spicy mayonnaise to make the shards of crunchy shell go down. Beneath the shell, the flesh had a mushy, oily texture that was also best balanced by sips of the astringent rice wine. And as for that piece with the legs, well . . . I was full by the time I got to it. That's my story, at least, and I'm sticking to it.
Still, I was proud of my accomplishment, as if this experience had brought me one step closer to deciphering the mysteries of Japanese cooking. My sense of pride lasted right up to the moment that I told my Japanese friends about my culinary adventure.
"Spider maki?" said one. "Never heard of it."
"You Americans," scolded the other. "The weirder something is, the better you like it."
Surprised, I asked Hiroshi Tsuji, owner of both the Solon and the Beachwood Shuhei locations, if it was true that spider maki was just something -- like California, Mexico, and Philadelphia rolls -- made up for us crazy Americans.
"Sure," he said with a nod. "We don't even have soft-shelled crabs in Japan."
There is a valuable lesson here: namely, that eating sushi need not be an exercise in courage. Not even every Japanese diner likes all types of sushi, my Asian friends assured me. Eat what you like, they said, and find some other way to shock your companions.
Happily, finding something to like at Shuhei's sushi bar presents no difficulty. Over the course of numerous visits, I have savored a variety of sashimi (thinly sliced raw, smoked, or cooked fish and seafood), nigiri sushi (raw or cooked fish, seafood, egg, or vegetables pressed onto a cylinder of sushi rice), hosomaki sushi (raw or cooked fish and seafood, and/or vegetables, and rice wrapped in seaweed and sliced), and futomaki sushi (double-sized "fat rolls," stuffed and sliced). Without exception (well, maybe one teensy, eight-legged exception), flavors have been fresh, textures have been exciting, and the tastes have been delicious.
A good place for novices to begin is with an appetizer of Sushi Aji, a sampler of beefy red tuna, pink smoked salmon, and pale yellowtail nigiri sushi, and a California roll. Thinly sliced and placed on a cylinder of sticky sushi rice with a dab of fiery green wasabi (a traditional condiment made from a root, and often called "Japanese horseradish"), the three types of fish are lusciously tender, with a velvety texture and a mild, vaguely sweet flavor. The California roll, a concession to American tastes, contains lengths of cooked imitation crab, cucumber, and avocado rolled with rice in a tender nori (seaweed) wrapper and sliced into six bite-sized portions. Sweet, moist, and mildly flavored, the California roll is a sure bet, even for those who think they don't like sushi.
Other delicious alternatives include rich, custard-like Tamago: a large rectangle of sugar-and-rice-wine-sweetened layered egg on a rice cylinder; the sweet-and-sour Kampyo Maki, made with strips of limp, marinated Asian squash; and Maguro Kaiware Maki, a spicy tuna roll that combines the creamy sweetness of the fish with the sharp bite of a housemade hot-chile sauce.
While good sushi obviously demands impeccably fresh seafood, fish is only part of the complex flavor experience.
Properly prepared sushi rice -- slightly sweet and sticky with a glossy sheen -- is essential. Steamed, tossed in a dressing of rice-wine vinegar, sugar, and salt, then fanned so it will cool off quickly, the rice adds layers of flavor and texture as well as helps to hold the sushi together. (Sushi rolls that come apart, as did several of the ones I had at Shuhei, are considered bad form.)
The sushi bar provides the complete set of traditional seasonings, including savory soy sauce, slices of sweet-hot pickled ginger, and more wasabi. Appropriate accompaniments, especially if one orders à la carte, are a bowl of subtly flavored miso soup and a bowl of white rice. Hot sake or hot tea are the beverages of choice, although Shuhei also offers a selection of Japanese beer.
Sushi bars are friendly places, and that includes the one at Shuhei. Like bar patrons everywhere, diners typically exchange greetings with one another and with the sushi chef. Frequently, talk includes bits of sushi lore and tales of travel, especially if they involve the discovery of great sushi in exotic locales.
It doesn't hurt, either, to become known to the sushi chef as a repeat customer. Not only are regular, friendly faces rumored to get the choicest bits of fish, but they may also be the grateful recipients of assorted goodies that the sushi chef hands out when the mood strikes him. On a day when everyone seemed especially cheerful, my little party was treated to bowls of crisp, pickled daikon radish accented with threads of carrot.
For those who decline bar seating, sushi -- as well as an assortment of non-sushi appetizers, soups, salads, and traditional noodle and tempura entrées -- can be had at one of the handful of tables in the middle of Shuhei's dining room. We especially enjoyed the Yakisoba: a golden-brown stir-fry of noodles, mushrooms, carrots, and bean sprouts with lots of tender beef strips. The dish came with an icy-cold house salad. While we enjoyed the zippy sesame dressing, we wished the soggy salad fixings had been better drained and served at a somewhat less frigid temperature.
Shuhei also has 12 large hibachi tables, where guests can order an assortment of stir-fried-before-your-very-eyes beef, chicken, lamb, seafood, and vegetable appetizers and entrées. We were disappointed that the kitchen was out of Sapporo Lamb Chops on the night we visited. Instead, we ordered three steak preparations, and the scallop version of Seafood Pacific. (The dish is also available with shrimp.) The generous portion of fat, tender scallops was very good, although the promised lemon-butter sauce was, at best, understated.
Shuhei Beef Teriyaki -- sliced prime rib with homemade teriyaki sauce -- was flavorless, and the meat was dry and chewy. Soy sauce helped add some taste and moisture to the otherwise disappointing meat.
Kobe Yakiniku -- thinly sliced New York strip steak in a mild but noticeable garlic sauce -- was more flavorful, although the meat, again, was dry. The Nagano Filet -- a thick, juicy tenderloin cut into cubes for stir-frying -- was more moist and tender. But although this meat was more toothsome, the promised roasted garlic sauce was imperceptible, and we had to request a few shakes of salt from our hibachi chef to flavor the otherwise bland steak.
All hibachi dinners come with a choice of delicious, crisp, and flavorful stir-fried Volcano Shrimp or a tasty inside-out California roll; miso soup; stir-fried vegetables; a generous portion of fried rice; and green tea. Our nattily dressed hibachi chef, in his brightly patterned baseball cap and baggy chef's pants, kept the food coming, feeding a full table of eight without any significant delays. But in terms of showmanship -- the usual business of tossing discarded shrimp tails into a receptacle held behind the back or tapping out a rhythm with seasoning containers while cooking -- he was less than riveting. Service from our seldom-seen waitress was also unimpressive. We nearly had to tackle her when we needed refills on our drinks or wanted to order a scoop of creamy green-tea ice cream for dessert.
Despite the less than top-notch hibachi dining, Shuhei's very good sushi bar makes it a worthy destination for a lunch or dinner of out-of-the-ordinary foods. While some details of preparation are occasionally overlooked, Shuhei's assortment of fresh and flavorful sushi is generally a delight. And if someone tries to challenge your man- (or woman-) hood with offers of spider maki, remember this: At the sushi bar, you don't have to prove nuthin' to nobody.
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