Ken’s Japanese Restaurant
2009 Division St. 321-2444
Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner: 5-10:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
My friend Wayne is a sushi connoisseur. He has attained this exalted status through years of sampling the fare at countless sushi restaurants, well-known and obscure, in the contiguous United States, Hawaii, and Europe. His first sushi experience was in 1981 in Los Angeles with singers Rick James and Teena Marie. He liked it so much that back in New York, where he was living at the time, he scoured the city to develop a list of personal favorites.
When Wayne moved to Nashville in early 1984, he discovered it to be a veritable sushi wasteland, with just one restaurant offering what many Southerners then considered nothing more than bait. Shogun, located at the corner of Broadway and 20th Avenue South, was a favorite haunt of music biz transplants from L.A. and New York. The sushi chef was Hajime Keruma, who went on to open his own restaurant, Koto, in a little hole-in-the-wall in the decidedly unfashionable area at the foot of the Shelby Street Bridge. Wayne followed Haji there and proved so loyal a customer that he eventually had a roll named after him. The Wayne rolleel, crab stick, burdock, and avocado with a special secret saucehas become a menu staple at Koto. When Haji moved to a much larger and more desirable location on Seventh Avenue North, so did Wayne.
A few weeks ago, there was a story in the Wednesday dining section of the The New York Times about a restaurant that Zagat says may be the most expensive in America: $300 prix fixe, per person, not including wine, tax, or tip. The restaurant is called Ginza Sushiko and is located not in some tony building or four-star hotel, but down a shabby hall on the second floor of a small shopping center on the bad end of Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. It has two tables, and at the sushi bar there are nine seats, all sporting name tagssort of like Adelphia’s PSLs, I guess.
Ginza does not offer a menu; everything served is at the discretion and whim of the chef/owner, Masa Takayama. For two hours, Takayama placed one exotic and fabulous dish after another before Times writer Eric Asimov: unidentifiable vegetables, fragrant broths, toro tartare, caviar, foie gras, and of course sushi. Asimov’s assessment? ”I could have spent the money on a new sport coat, round-trip airfare to London, a half-dozen parking citations, maybe two tickets to a Knicks game.“ But, he says, the meal was superb, singular, and memorable.
I called Wayne to ask him if he knew the place. He had already been there, as the guest of a friend who knew his passion for sushi and who thought it would be the perfect gift. Wayne’s assessment? ”It was good, but analyzing the price-intake ratio, I could have had three meals at [famed L.A. sushi restaurant] Matsuhisa for the same cost, and I would have enjoyed it more.“
Naturally, when I heard about Ken’s Japanese Restaurant, I asked Wayne to join me for dinner at the eatery, which opened recently on Division Street, in the site formerly occupied by Mack’s Cafe. Though decidedly less expensive, it shares at least one notable thing with Ginza in that it is owned by the chef, Kenji Ohnoalways a good sign.
Having worked previously at Shintomi and Ichiban, Ohno has been one of the Nashville sushi cognoscenti’s favorite chefs for some time, but when he came to America eight years ago from Osaka, Japan, he was a complete novice. He admits, ”I didn’t even know how to use a knife“a skill that sushi chefs must perfect if they expect to stay in business very long. Ohno first worked in the kitchen at Ichiban learning the cutlery basics; within a year, he had worked his way up to an assistant’s position at the sushi bar under Chef Todo. He moved on to Shintomi for a while, then back to Ichiban. He wanted to open his own restaurant and was scouting the Vanderbilt area when the Mack’s Cafe space became available. The decor has changed little since Lin Cameron took it over a couple years ago and made it into Cafe Luna; the sushi bar now stands about where the original Mack’s counter used to be. There are booths and tables in the front and back rooms; I like the ambiance of the back room better, but be warned, it is the smoking section.
The menu is small but includes a good sampling of appetizers as well as entrees. Laotian chef Joe Sayachek is scheduled to start this week, but there are already several Laotian and Thai specialties in place; eventually, Sayachek will expand the selection further.
Of the appetizers, we particularly liked the seaweed salad, ordering seconds as soon as we got a taste of the dish, the not unpleasant bitterness offset by a sesame dressing. Steamed spinach with peanut sauce was another tasty green. The squid salad was a generous bowl of poached squid, lightly tossed in fresh lime juice, cilantro, and chili peppers. The ika shoga yaki, calamari sautéed with ginger soy sauce, was another winner. There are two deep-fried appetizers: the agedashi difu, which is deep-fried bean curd, and Ken’s Fingers, lengths of boneless chicken and fish in a tempura batter served with sweet chili sauce. I admit to a deep-rooted dislike of bean curd, with its slimy texture and lack of any taste, but chacun à son gout. Some at our table inexplicably enjoyed it, but most of us preferred Ken’s Fingers, though the name can be a little off-putting.
The grilled salmon entree was superbly cookedfirm and as moist as if it were poachedand accompanied by a lively Thai cabbage slaw with ponzu sauce. The best item we sampled in the bento box was a thick chunk of mahi mahi cooked in a teriyaki sauce; the Mongolian pork was fatty and overcooked.
Ohno is the man when it’s sushi time, and on this evening he exceeded our expectations, particularly after a rather disappointing visit a couple of weeks before. We tried several rolls: The crunchy shrimp was perfect, thanks to big portions of shrimp and a light hand with the mayo; the spicy tuna roll benefited from a generous dose of wasabi; the rainbow roll was nice and fat. Although somewhat reluctantly, it seems, Ohno has included sushi pizza in his repertoire. An Ichiban specialty, it consists of a flat bed of rice with crab sticks, roe, and other ingredients spread with mayonnaise and buttera typically American way to fatten up a healthy dish, similar to taking a perfectly fine baked potato and adding cheese, bacon, butter, and sour cream.
Most American diners are familiar with maki sushi: raw fish, rice, and other ingredients rolled up in a piece of seaweed, then sliced into almost bite-sized pieces. Nigiri sushi, on the other hand, consists of small slabs of fish laid out on a mound of rice. Ohno’s nigiri was a joy to behold, with the reassuringly bright colors of very fresh yellowtail, tuna, and salmon artfully arranged on a large serving platter, but it was even more delightful to eat. One notable characteristic common to both his nigiri and maki is the proportion of fish to rice. Too many sushi restaurants use too much rice and too little fish; Ohno flips the equation, allowing diners to savor the distinct flavors of each fish.
When I phoned Ohno to chat a few days after our meal, he remembered the table because we had ”so much food!“ Even so, for our party of seven, the check came to just $158, about half of what a meal for one would cost at Ginza. Wayne’s assessment? ”An excellent price-intake ratio, and really good sushi. I’ll be back.“ High praise indeed from a sushi savant.
Speaking of fish, chef Josh Weekley, who built his impeccable reputation as a seafood guru at F. Scott’s, then Loews Vanderbilt Plaza, is now firmly in place at Atlantis as chef and partner with Susan Cone. He has introduced a new menu, though diners can expect plenty more tinkering as he gets feedback from the dining room.
Among the culinary lures Weekley is dangling before hungry foodies are, to start, Provençal fish soup with black truffle oil, mussel soup with saffron and sorrel, lobster-crab cake with a horseradish remoulade, and gewürtzraminer-poached foie gras with mango relish and ginger jus. Entrees include lobster pie with white truffle mashed potatoes, confit of muscovy duck, herb-crusted lamb chops served with leek and goat-cheese flan, and Argentine beef strip. The half-dozen or so fish selections will vary according to what is freshest and best. Last week, he had mustard-crusted sea bass with lobster mashed potatoes and lemon-basil vinaigrette, and roasted monk fish with seared foie gras, savoy cabbage, and chive butter sauce.
Atlantis is located at 1911 Broadway; phone: 327-8001. Open for dinner Mon.-Sat. from 5 p.m.