Tuesday, June 27, 2000

Balanced meal

Posted on Tue, Jun 27, 2000 at 4:00 AM

Japanese cuisine is all about harmony. Everything – from the food to the presentation to the restaurant's decor – is suppose to work together to create a flawlessly integrated and refreshing experience. But since my kind of sushi joint is the sort that blares music and uses Godzilla as a mascot, this concept of harmony remained foreign to me until I dined at Hanamizuki.

Situated in a bland I-Drive strip mall, Hanamizuki has zero vibe from the outside. But inside is a spacious room with sage-green walls, elegantly minimalist decor, and a menu of refreshing depth and intrigue. An absolute lack of all things kitschy gives the place an unfussy, authentic air. The focus is on flavorful, expertly prepared food and enjoying it in the proper environment.

My dining partner and I opted for courtside seats at the sushi bar. Hanamizuki's expansive menu is an invitation to experiment, so we kicked off with two appetizers, tako su ($6) and ika nuta ($5). The former was a small salad of sliced octopus that was well-complemented by a soy-sauce dressing with a distinct bacon flavor. The latter was a small bowl of squid and scallions blended with a sauce of white soybean paste, vinegar and a hot mustard with a delightful kick.

Pleased thus far, we moved onto the more traditional sashimi and maki-style sushi (rolled with rice). Moriawase ($20 and up) is the chef's selection of the day's best raw fish. Presented with little fanfare on a medium-size white plate, the dish focuses totally on the superb sliced fish. Fresh and firm with barely a scent from the sea, this was top-notch sashimi (at nearly $2 a bite.) The tightly wrapped maki-style rolls were neatly presented, with the very spicy cod being our favorite.

From the menu's grilled and fried sections, we liked the "beef nagima yaki" ($15), a substantial plate of small rolls of thinly sliced, if a bit dry, grilled beef surrounding enticingly crunchy braised scallions flavored by soy sauce. And the "kashige combination" ($15) boasts 10 skewers, each with one crisp piece of seafood, meat or vegetable (the onion was our favorite). All were deep fried in a very light batter that recalled coconut shavings.

Our sole misadventure was mozuku tororo ($7), a ghastly blend of grated yam and mozuku seaweed in a viscous broth, topped with a raw quail egg. We attempted to eat it with chopsticks, which brought chuckles from the chef and waitress.

Our otherwise exquisite meal was topped off by Japanese ice cream enhanced with red-bean toppings – a graceful way to end this feast. Hanamizuki isn't cheap, but it is a most gracious and delicious way to enjoy the foods of Japan.


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