Hanabi Japanese Restaurant
Hanabi Japanese Restaurant creates a fairytale sushi story in the Artichoke Capital of the World.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Love is stronger than looks. Take it from Beauty and the Beast, who taught us that one can learn to love despite hairy body parts and general grotesqueness. So it goes with Hanabi Japanese Restaurant, a tiny, hole-in-the-wall, outwardly rather plain Japanese restaurant in Castroville wedged between Burger King, Nueva Imagen Hair Salon and 99 Cent and Up stores.
Here the fresh fish and creative sushi rolls feel like an unexpected encounter – a la John Smith finding Pocahontas.
What makes this love affair with the Sake Roll ($13) and other Castroville fare all the more unlikely is that I am no Sleeping Beauty. Instead, I am a sushi bitch. Or least that is what my friends call me. My stubborn opinions on seaweed, rice and rawness had already appeared at the age of 6, when I started proudly announcing my favorite food, to the horror of my half-pint peers, was uncooked fish. My dad and I claimed usual seats at the sushi bar I called “Hikari’s Place,” a restaurant hidden in the back alleys of the Crossroads in Carmel, for as long as I can remember. My eyes still light up at the words tekka-maki or saba. My mouth waters at the faintest smell of wasabi and soy sauce.
But back to the fairy tale. Like Aladdin’s Jasmine, Hanabi has a great disguise to hide royal qualities: Its miniscule spot, with only seven tables and small sushi bar, is quaint, dimly-lit, with air-conditioning blaring.
The menu is longer than Cinderella’s gown – with all the typical Japanese suspects like chicken teriyaki with rice ($7.95), edamame ($4), miso soup ($2.50), and Nbeyaki udon noodles ($10.50) – but it was the maki (or special rolls) that brought on ga-ga eyes and gasps like Lion King had just walked in. Offerings like a Texas hold’em roll ($7.50) with steak, cream cheese, asparagus and unagi sauce, or a vegetarian roll ($5.25) of broccoli, cucumber, avocado, and carrots, reflect a menu versatile enough to seduce personal preferences. Their fish is impressively fresh from San Francisco’s True World Foods, an international company with over 25 locations with a focus on U.S. Grade A seafood.
Skip the cold tofu appetizer ($4), though, given that it’s an uninspired, thick block of tofu with green onion, bonito fish flakes, a fingernail-sized topping of minced ginger and soy sauce. My vegetarian friends barely touched it, although they loved the vegetable tempura appetizer ($4.95), an array of sweet potato, broccoli, carrot and other veggies with the expected sticky dipping sauce. Like The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel after one look at Prince Eric, they wanted more – in this case, more flavor from the appetizers.
Overwhelmed with the 40-plus specialty sushi items, I was smitten with Chef Francisco Minquino’s help. Call him my fairy godmother, guiding me through the menu, helping me choose appropriate rolls to my taste, while steering me away from rolls that included ingredients to which I am allergic.
He promised that Sriracha hot sauce would taste just as superb as the garlic sauce on the red dragon roll ($11), a combination of spicy tuna, green onion, and avocado festively topped with a colorful pattern of alternating pieces of albacore and yellowtail tuna. The yellowtail tuna on top was gristle-free and a translucent dark maroon that’s sashimi grade. As with each maki roll, the seaweed surrounding the sweet and vinegary white rice was moist enough to be eaten in a dismantled manner.
Another recommendation from Chef Francisco was the sake roll ($11), yellowtail and cucumber, topped with salmon, green onion and paper thin slices of lemon. It was simple yet unique, without any faux glamor from sauce or deep-frying. It tastes how all great sushi rolls should, with the sea-salt flavor of the fish and a hint of citrusy lemon spark. The combination made it a favorite.
Their roll reppin’ Castroville ($9.50) satisfied my companions, topped with artichoke heart tempura, rolled with shrimp, avocado, cucumber, and cloaked with a tangy, creamy orange sauce (alas, I’m allergic to tempura). The flavors from the orange sauce were unlike any I’ve encountered – creamy with a citrus bite, with a mild wasabi aftertaste, closer to a spicy orange cream soda than anything else. It paired well with the artichoke and shrimp, and is common on other rolls on the menu.
It bears mentioning that as Sleeping Beauty’s Price Charming must battle a green-ooze-breathing dragon in order to kiss Aurora and break her sleeping spell, smooching this sushi involves some hurdles. The house Hanabi roll ($11) sounded killer: spicy yellowtail and cucumber inside, with a tuna, avocado, daikon radish, fish roe and garlic sauce crown. It arrived sans two ingredients; the chef replied he did not have the daikon and tobiko. It would have been nice to know before ordering the roll, though the pieces were still very pleasurable.
One of their specials, the heavy duty roll ($13), had a triple seafood threat of spicy salmon, yellowtail, and albacore, accompanied by avocado and green onion. But it was garnished with a heavy mound of tempura bits without warning, leaving me out, though my companions ate cheerfully and called it was one of the best rolls eaten all night.
It would be nice if they followed the Monterey Bay Aquarium Sustainable Seafood Watch and got rid of their Styrofoam. Maybe a Sapporo ($6.50/large) or Hanabi’s house sake unfiltered Sayurdi ($9.95 a bottle) can help distract diners in the mean time.
But so it goes in the land of fairy tales. There should be some drama, with hope for an idyllic ending, as that only makes the sweet romance of fresh fish on the lips that much more real when the storybook ending arrives.
HANABI JAPANESE RESTAURANT 11276 Merritt St., Castroville. • 11am-2:30pm Mon-Fri; 5 – 9pm Mon-Sat. • 633-4262.