Food & Drink » Wine & Dine Review

The Rising Sun

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2001-08-04
Here in Charlotte, sushi is as hot as the tropics at the moment. You know this is true when you see grocery shoppers toss a six pack or two into their carts as readily as they do packaged lettuce. Residents of Huntersville, though, have a new sushi option. Last April ASAHI Japanese Restaurant and ASAHI Japanese Express opened. "Huntersville is such a fast-growing town. We thought we would give it a try since sushi is so popular now. Exit 23 is a good area, not like 36. It's close to 18 and not too far from 28," explains Oymon Sim, one of the owners. If this code of exits off I-77 makes sense to you, you probably live in range of ASAHI. Sim and her husband David used to own the Golden Palace on Albemarle Road, which they bought from her father in 1990. Another ASAHI owner came from a Charlotte Chinese restaurant as well. James Lam worked for Wan Fu Restaurant in south Charlotte several years ago. The third co-owner is Japanese-native Kazuo Tozawa, who is also the chef. The restaurant is not named for a popular Japanese beer. Rather ASAHI means the rising sun and signifies a new beginning, which it is for the owners. Although modestly located in one of those nondescript red brick newly-built shopping centers, the owners have transformed their space (across the parking lot from the Bi-Lo) into a stunning, yet whimsical 100-seat dining room. This smartly designed restaurant is the work of Lou Chien of Watts Leaf Architects in Charlotte. The restaurant, through calmed by the choice of the lilac wall color, is vibrant. The center dining section is defined by lattice woodwork stained green and funky Paleolithic Lascauxesque table tops with drawings of cats and dogs. To the sides are more secluded nooks and toward the rear, a large private room. The sushi bar, fronted by a half dozen bright red bar stools, has small colorful fish halogen lights dangling from lines overhead. There is a space for a television in back of the bar, but one has yet to be installed. The mood is upbeat, not traditional. This establishment's attention to detail is readily evident. The wine list is abbreviated but well chosen and reasonably priced. All the wines are offered by the glass as well. In addition, they offer an assortment of imported and domestic beers. Servers make the customers feel appreciated, and owner Sim, who grew up in her father's Chinese restaurant, has a dedicated eye. The food comes quickly. ASAHI's menu yields many delights. Fragrant miso soup tempts you to want more. A salad of crisp greens and gentle sesame ginger vinaigrette proves to be a perfect palate cleanser. Chef Tozawa has finessed the overly familiar Shumai shrimp dumpling into flavorful, memorable morsels (six for $4.95). But, unfortunately, not everything works. The grilled squid ($8.95) paired with a mound of horseradish, though wonderfully smoky, was tough. As for the sushi, what arrives is fresh and expertly prepared but somewhat lacking in artful presentation and variety. It is my habit to ask the sushi chef to prepare whatever he wants, since the sushi bar is a good indication of the chef's artistic temperament. At times I am presented with exhilarating trays which can take your breath away for their skillful presentation and daring inventiveness with ingredients. But this chef took a more conservative route. Not that I blame the restaurant for this. More than one restaurant located in Lake Norman suburbia has squandered its resources by overreaching for what is not necessary. So no quail eggs or uni or an intricate interplay of color and flavor in an exotic arrangement. At ASAHI, the tray was filled with deftly cleaved, sparkling fresh tuna Maki rolls, nestled among rows of Nigiri with thin slices of the more commonly found varieties of tuna and salmon resting on poufs of short grain rice. These were held together with a murmur of rice vinegar and highlighted by a whisper of wasabi. I confess to being hopelessly addicted to sticky rice, and thus rarely get beyond the sushi bar in Japanese restaurants. However, if you don't like sushi, the old standbys are here, too: bento boxes, udon, teriyaki, and tempura. In addition, ASAHI has added such specials as pan-seared chicken with Belgian endive, cilantro, jalapeno avocado sauce, and tamari sauce ($13.95); grilled moromiso marinated steak with shiitake, enoki, and oyster mushrooms ($16.95); sake-poached shrimp with fried baby spinach, escarole, cilantro, with a spicy lemon dressing and tamari soy sauce ($17.95); and grilled salmon with fried baby spinach, arugula, and yuzu-miso sauce ($18.95). The restaurant is open for lunch and offers a smaller menu, which is also available for carry out. This includes Tunkatsu (fried pork cutlet, $6.50), sauteed scallops with mushrooms and onions ($7.95), chicken karange (breaded chicken in a sweet tangy sauce, $6.25), and grilled chicken teriyaki ($6.25). These items are served with a salad, vegetables, and rice. Also offered for lunch are bento boxes, udon dishes, both soup and stir fry ($6.50-$7.95), and tempura served with a salad and rice ($6.50-$7.95). The owners were smart to add the Express side to their business, particularly now that grocery stores are selling sushi. However, I'm not so sure what will happen to Japanese cuisine if it becomes as common a carry out item as pizza or moo goo gai pan. Freshness is, after all, the key to Japanese cuisine and finding a three-day-old tote of nigiri pushed to the back of the refrigerator will not be the same as finding a slice of old pizza. Prices are reasonable for a Japanese restaurant. The sushi deluxe, a combination of two rolls and six nigiri, is $19.75. Udon dishes range from $5.95 to $10.95, salmon teriyaki is $14.95 and tempura shrimp is $14.95. ASAHI is an unassuming neighborhood spot filled with promise. It may be a bit of a distance from center city Charlotte, but those in its neighborhood shouldn't keep their distance. ASAHI Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar and ASAHI Japanese Express, 14211 Reese Boulevard, Huntersville. 704-948-7728; carry out 704-948-0228. Hours are lunch Monday through Friday 11:30am until 2:30pm; dinner Sunday through Thursday 5pm until 10pm; and Friday and Saturday 5pm until 11pm. AmEx, Visa, MC.

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