Try It, You’ll Like It! Japanese appetizers that don’t involve raw fish.
Komei Horimoto of Horinoya
Going out to a Japanese restaurant with friends can be an anxiety-ridden experience for diners who are disinclined to eat sashimi or similarly uncooked dishes. When the large sushi platters begin to appear at the table, these unfortunates are reduced to picking through a minefield of foods that they fear––confused and afraid. Or sometimes they splinter off from the pack, ordering a safe entrée like chicken teriyaki then ending up full, yet feeling somehow out of synch with everyone else. This is, I imagine, a lonely place to be. But what often gets passed over at Japanese restaurants are the wonderful cooked appetizers. Reticent diners might consider these as a sort of “tapas” and build a meal around them. They will be rewarded with an experience that is far more variegated and interesting than teriyaki without having to eat foods that they might otherwise not enjoy.
Chicken kara-age at Horinoya.
One place that is sure to please everyone is Horinoya (920 Poydras St.) This elegant yet understated gem is arguably the best Japanese restaurant in town, and is certainly one of the most authentic. Furthermore, the menu is front-heavy with the best assortment of small plates around, most of which are truly Japanese and not Americanized hybrid inventions. The saba shioyaki, or broiled mackerel, is fantastic. Mackerel is an uncommon fish on menus, given its relatively high oil content, but the lightly-salted cut served here arrives perfectly cooked and melt-in-your mouth delicious. I order this every time and I’ve never been disappointed. The hamachi kama, or grilled yellowtail neck, is another wonderful dish. The meat on this cut is tender and ephemeral, though it takes a little bit of picking around to get to all of it. The tarakasuzuke, a lean filet of grilled black cod marinated in sake, is flavorful, its fragrant flesh redolent of rice wine. Takoyaki, a popular snack in Japan that is often sold from street-side carts, are akin to hushpuppies only lighter, and have tender chunks of boiled octopus inside. The delicate spheres are served with a ramekin of sauce, usually a curiously Western-informed Worcestershire-spiked ketchup, though the sauce served has oscillated between visits. Finally, the chicken kara-age, bite-sized pieces of delicately fried chicken, is not something you would necessarily seek out at a Japanese restaurant but is something that is good to keep in mind if you have kids to please. Perhaps it can be a stepping-stone to bolder things.
Takoyaki, a popular snack in Japan, is on the menu at Horinoya.
Ninja (8433 Oak St.) offers a Japanese option along the eclectic Oak Street corridor and is a good choice for families with children. Once you proceed beyond the somewhat cryptic downstairs-to-upstairs processing center, you’ll find lots of good appetizers that satisfy a range of tastes. The tuna tataki presents slices of—admittedly rare—seared tuna served in a shallow dish with ponzu sauce and garnished with peppery wasabi sprouts. As the ponzu sauce bangs up against the Cajun seasoning, the contrast between the spices creates an interesting sensation that goes beyond soy sauce and rice.
Here you don’t have to eat raw to be adventurous. Order a wasabi roll, and prepare to experience what might be best described as being smacked in the head with a crisp, palate-cleansing brick. Don’t worry—unlike Louisiana hot sauces, this pain passes quickly. Think of it as a tornado compared to a hurricane. Daredevils wishing to further such experimentation can tackle the wasabi shumai, which are dumplings with the pungent horseradish blended into the dough. These little green firecrackers will make you better appreciate an ice-cold Sapporo as you pitch forward clutching your head, thereby amusing the kids. It hurts so good.
In the bustling Warehouse District you’ll find Rock-n-Sake (823 Fulton St.),
a sleek sushi bar that increasingly blurs the line between restaurant and club as the evening progresses. Decidedly not for families, as the place fills up, the social scene becomes as big of a draw as the food.
The primary elements here get a contemporary twist; the sushi counter is sheathed in stainless steel and the typical recursive loop of Japanese Muzak you hear in most other places replaced by ambient DJ-spun beats. Glass sculptures and artwork incorporate a lot of neon, and the serious sound system pumps out a lot of bass. The polished cement floor and exposed beams complete the ambiance.
Traditional is not on the menu here. And while this place specializes in interesting rolls, the appetizer section offers some nice options. An order of killer scallops come pan-sautéed in butter and Panko breadcrumbs—not too imaginative, but there
is nothing wrong with scallops cooked in butter, either. A better choice is the BBQ tuna, two skewers of fresh tuna glazed in a sweet sauce then char-grilled over a
charcoal fire. The meat tumbles off in large flakes, and the grilling caramelizes the sauce, making for a savory-sweet experience. The otherwise non-descript dumplings come immersed in an interesting spicy gyoza soup made up of beef broth,
cucumbers, bok choy, onions and carrots. Listed along with the soups and salads,
this dish alone is filling enough for a meal.
Jipang is nestled in the heart of the CBD (814 Gravier St.) and offers a casual Japanese lunch alternative for area office workers. The buffet is the big draw, but
customers can just as easily order à la carte. The age-dashi is one tasty option—the fried tofu picks up its flavoring cues from a light and delicious tempura sauce
composed of mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine) and rice vinegar. Dusted with
bonito flakes, this healthy option adds a dash of zip to otherwise mild protein. Also, the baked salmon assumes monster proportions here. A stuffing of snow crab is embedded within a pinwheel of baked salmon, then drizzled with sweet eel sauce. Other traditional offerings include gyoza and shumai, pan-fried and steamed dumplings, respectively.
Finally, for timid eaters feeling ready to take the next step, I’d suggest starting
with unagi, also known as barbecue eel. I call it the “Gateway Sushi.” Once you try that, there is usually no going back. But in the meantime, no matter which Japanese restaurant you choose, there is bound to be something for everyone.