By Robin Garr
(with guest reviewer Suzi Bernert)
Gather ’round, young ’uns, and I’ll tell you a story about days gone by. Way back in the dark ages … well, the 1980s … sushi was only a wild-eyed rumor here in Louisville, and most people didn’t believe it would be either appetizing or healthy to eat raw fish.
When this Japanese treat first hit town, it was available only as a Thursday special at a downtown luncheonette, sparsely attended by a small group of zanies (yes, I was one of them) who understood that 125 million Japanese can’t all be wrong. Soon the proprietor went off to start the city’s first real sushi bar, Sachicoma. But it was years before Louisville worked up enough of a sushi craze to support more than one.
How times have changed! Now there are some 20 Japanese, Korean and even Thai eateries with sushi, and any number of grocery stores where you can pick up a ration of nori-wrapped maki-zushi rolls to take home for dinner. No extra charge for the chopsticks.
Last week brought further evidence that sushi has gone mainstream in River City: “Sushi in the City,” a joyous celebration of raw fish and rice, lured a happy, noisy capacity crowd of 300 revelers to the Henry Clay downtown, where seven local sushi emporia offered free tastes and contended for bragging rights in a popularity poll that saw Raw Sushi Lounge take home the crown.
Proceeds of the $60-a-person tasting went to benefit Louisville’s Project Women, a nonprofit agency that provides housing and educational assistance for homeless single mothers and their families.
Naturally I was there. I grabbed a camera, notepad and chopsticks and headed for the beautifully restored Henry Clay, where a crowd already packed the ballroom.
Circling the room, first up was Caviar Japanese Restaurant, a late addition to the roster whose management jumped in at the last minute to replace a couple of eateries that failed to show. Caviar’s chefs did well under the pressure, too, putting forward large, well flavored if somewhat loosely formed California roll with a good ration of surimi “crab” to give it heft.
Caviar Japanese Restaurant
416 W. Muhammad Ali Blvd.
At the next booth down the line, Maido Essential Japanese co-owner Toki Masubuchi Huie and staff were on hand, turning out splendid sushi bites in quantity. The lyrically named “Dragon King’s Daughter Reborn” caught my attention with its colorful look and subtle flavor, a citrus-accented tuna roll presented on a half-moon slice of fresh orange. Another tuna bite was striped with a spicy white sauce. Both showed off the characteristic artful style and multi-dimensional flavors that make Maido my favorite Japanese restaurant in Louisville.
Maido Essential Japanese
1758 Frankfort Ave.
Raw Sushi Lounge rang my sushi gong with its “Fire Breathing Dragon,” a tasty and well-made tuna roll plated on two sauces that came together in a zippy, delectable combination of sweet-hot and peanut flavors. It was good, so good that I sneaked back around to grab seconds.
Raw Sushi Lounge
520 S. 4th St.
The longest lines of the evening stacked up at Sapporo’s station, testimony to the Highlands sushi bar’s popularity and leading me to peg it as the early favorite in the popular vote. It turned out that chefs were fashioning sashimi bites (salmon and yellowtail) a la minute, an impressive performance but one that slowed the process a bit. The yellowtail was tender and meaty with a tangy ginger sauce. A shrimp and crab roll with a potent, almost fiery level of heat got my endorphins pumping, too.
Sapporo Japanese Grill & Sushi
1706 Bardstown Road
Another strong contender, Kansai Japanese Steakhouse from Clarksville, impressed the crowd — and me — with a virtual Japanese banquet that featured sashimi-style tuna tartare, a healthy mixed-lettuces salad with an Asian vibe, and a spicy tuna roll that gained points for flavor but lost a step or two for loose formation.
Kansai Japanese Steakhouse
1370 Veterans Parkway
Osaka Sushi, like Caviar, gains extra credit for volunteering on very short notice to help fill the unsightly space left by a couple of eateries that didn’t show up. Unfortunately, I couldn’t highly rate Osaka’s simple inside-out tuna rolls, which were carelessly formed and seemed a trifle on the far side of fresh.
Osaka Sushi & Japanese Cuisine
2039 Frankfort Ave.
The folks from Café Mimosa went the creative route with a “Summer Spring Roll,” a California-type inside-out roll with salmon and grilled asparagus, topped with a dot of spicy mayo and, of all things, a strawberry. It was a neat concept, but in practice all those flavors just didn’t pop the way I’d have liked them to.
1216 Bardstown Road
Meanwhile, Nio’s @ 917 Tapas Restaurant, which had declared itself “the non-sushi option” of the evening, ran out of crab cakes and bite-size riblets early. It was all gone by the time we got there, alas. Gordon Food Services and Event Concepts passed out desserts, and beverage sponsors Maker’s Mark and BBC Brewing provided libations.
You might think I would be sushi’d out after a full evening of sampling, but it ain’t so. The experience left me seriously jonesing for more.
China Dragon roars
Meanwhile, as long as we’re on an Asian theme today, let’s stay there with this affectionate review of a Smoketown chopsticks-house favorite, China Dragon. Eats contributor SUZI BERNERT reports:
In the Louisville tradition of giving directions, China Dragon is on the corner of Hancock and Broadway, where the KFC, followed by the Fish Stand, used to be. Don’t be fooled by the “just another Chinese fast food” look — the chow is great.
The dining area is functional and very clean, with Asian décor. The pink tri-fold menus offer a variety of typical dishes in seafood, chicken, beef and vegetable options. One big difference from the archetypal Chinese fast food is almost everything is available in lunch or dinner portions, rather than the usual limited lunch special menu. Except for Lo Mein noodle dishes and Egg Foo Youngs, meals come with an egg roll, fried rice and a fortune cookie.
Our first foray took us through the drive-thru for lunch. There was a brief wait, and when the food arrived, the owner came to the window with it to explain that everything was cooked to order. It was well worth the wait. The China Dragon Seafood Combination ($4.85) included shrimp, scallops and crab. I am always leery of dishes with scallops, as the line between tender and rubber is very thin. When I opened the box, I found a large portion of seafood and vegetables in a white sauce. Everything tasted very fresh, and the small scallops were tender and flavorful, as were all the ingredients. The egg roll was crisp and grease-free. My son Edward had Combination Lo Mein ($6.20), which must have been good: He almost inhaled it.
On a second visit, we went inside for dinner, where you order at the counter and get your drinks. The meals are served in the same take-out trays as the drive-thru, but the flavors and freshness more than make up for the limited ambience. I ordered the Seafood Combination ($6.95 for dinner) again, and it was even better than the last time. The food came out steaming hot, in huge portions. The egg rolls were crisp, full of crispy veggies and grease-free. The Sweet and Sour Chicken was a combination of light and dark meat, fried crisp with a moist meaty interior, topped with sliced carrots, onion and pepper strips and pineapple chunks.
Subsequent visits have continued to yield fresh, hot food in ample portions. So far, no bad meals at China Dragon.
600 E. Broadway
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