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The Soy Next Door

Mizuho warrants return visits

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Among the dishes offered on the "kids meal" menu at Mizuho Sushi & Japanese Cuisine is wasabi-free sushi. "Even in Japan, kids don't like the wasabi when they're young," noted co-owner Masami Ueno. Since sushi became cool here, few places serving it have catered or even considered the pre-tween set. While children are not the focus of Mizuho by any stretch, this thoughtful attention to detail makes Mizuho a charming restaurant.

Ueno's husband, co-owner and chef Hiro Ueno, trained as a French chef in the Adeno Culinary School in Osaka, Japan. Together, they worked in large hotel restaurants in Osaka and Tokyo for 10 years before relocating to the US. Their first stop was working in a Japanese restaurant in South Carolina.

In August 2004, the Uenos opened their ambitious 80-seat Mizuho in the space once occupied by Tsukiji Japanese Restaurant. That restaurant had developed a loyal following for sushi and traditional Japanese dishes for more than a decade.

The interior has not changed much since Tsukiji. The rice paper screens protect the diners from views of the parking lot; the carpet has seen better days. Near the center at the back is a small sushi bar area, and the natural wood accented main dining room has booths bracing the walls and tables in the middle. To the left of the entrance is a 20-seat tatami area with leg wells. This room tends to get smoky since it's also the smoking area, but the room may be reserved for private parties. Masami Ueno said the room is frequently occupied by non-smokers, however. Although the server for the tatami room wears a kimono, the main dining room servers wear Mizuho T-shirts and black pants. Recorded jazz sets an enlivened, but relaxing, tone.

As soon as we were seated, our server presented a basket of oshibori (hot towels) and the lengthy menu. Eating Japanese is never inexpensive, but the prices here are modest. "We needed to keep some of their [Tsukiji] popular items on the menu at the request of the customers," Masami Ueno reported. However, she stated they have expanded their seafood offerings as well.

Their sushi chef is Mr. Kaseno, a trained and licensed Itatame, who came to Mizuho from years at Musashi, a nearby Japanese restaurant. The sushi menu features three dozen Makimono (rolled) sushi ($1.99 to $9.99) and 24 Nigiri ($.99 to $2.99 per piece) items, including fresh water and sea eel (which don't get a lot of play outside Japanese and Chinese joints), yellowtail, beef and fatty tuna. Our platter brimmed with luscious pieces. While we were not overly impressed with the skate wing nigiri special, it only heightened our appreciation for the freshness of the other pieces from the savory fatty tuna to the boisterous eel roll made sweet with barbecue sauce. Kaseno achieves a balance and interplay of color and flavor in his harmonious arrangements, which are pleasing both to the eye and the palate.

From the kitchen, the seared but sad slabs of thinly sliced tuna tataki were completely overshadowed by the other delectable small plates. Of the stars, the marinated octopus salad and the perfect shrimp shumai shone the brightest. Also good were the large, succulent shrimp tempura enveloped in a greaseless, delicate, airy crust and the succulent, bursting with flavor pan-fried gyoza pork dumplings. Obviously, Chef Ueno is teasing his customers to return. We instantly downed steaming bowls of flavorful miso soup with small rafts of tofu, but could not even attempt to finish the abundant bowl of rib-sticking udon noodle soup. Even after all this food, you still may have room for green tea or red bean ice cream, a simple and refreshing finale.

If ordering sushi or other dishes a la carte is not for you, Mizuho offers combo boxes at lunch as well as combination dinners. The three-piece tempura shrimp ($9.99) and 14-piece sashimi ($18.99) dinners include a green salad, miso soup, rice and stir-fried vegetables. The much larger love boat for two includes green salad, miso soup, tempura, California roll, beef teriyaki, grilled sea bass misoyaki, fried chicken, baked mussels, fried rice and seasonal fruits for $38. Also on the menu are tofu steak, teriyaki, fried pork cutlet, rice dishes such as Katsudon (which is breaded pork and egg on rice), and a selection of curries.

The only downside at Mizuho was the slowness in service, which was caused on one night by an unexpected crowd arriving at approximately the same time. On another occasion, service was quite good.

Masami Ueno said that many of the area Japanese restaurants are not owned by native Japanese; only four or five can make that claim. Mizuho is one of them. Should this make a difference? Perhaps. But in any case, the neighborhood is fortunate to gain the traditional style of the Uenos.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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