Trendy sushi chain Ra keeps it appetizing for the tourist crowd

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Trendy sushi chain Ra keeps it appetizing for the tourist crowd
Rob Bartlett
RA SUSHI 9101 International Drive | 407-454-5600 | | $$$

What Benihana did for teppanyaki, Ra hopes to do for sushi. That this stylish restaurant chain is owned by Benihana is no surprise, but I imagine what most of you really want to know is, does Ra Sushi warrant a trip to Pointe Orlando? The answer to that question, dear readers, is a matter of proximity. Sure, the sushi rolls at Ra are decent enough ("unique," or so says the menu), but decent sushi joints are a dime a dozen in this city. If your neighborhood happens to be lacking in one, and you're up for a jaunt to I-Drive, then Ra will leave you mostly contented, if a little light in the wallet.

Ra Sushi's dark and moody digs reflected the disinterested temperament of our server on this quiet weekday evening, though the red balls of the light fixtures poised above the handful of assembled diners provided some levity. But for all the restaurant's flash and dash, the menu offerings were surprisingly bland. When the creamy ginger-teriyaki dipping sauce upstaged the batter-fried "Ra"-ckin' shrimp ($11.25), we got a sense of what lay ahead – we wound up dipping tame cream-cheese-heavy edamame wontons ($7.20) in the same sauce. Dumbed-down flavors plagued crispy spicy tuna rolls ($6.99) – we couldn't taste the tuna – as well as creatively formed "Ra"-llipops ($15.25), signature skewered rolls of tuna, salmon, yellowtail and spicy tuna looped with asparagus, lettuce and cucumber, then wrapped in lobok (Chinese radish). Not dipping the lollipops in garlic-ponzu sauce meant chomping on mouthfuls of monotony.

Simpler items fared better, however: fresh yellowtail ($5.75) and striped-bass ($5) nigiri, for example, as well as invigorating tako sashimi ($8.75), presented with lemon slices wedged between thin cuts of octopus on a circular plate. The latter was easily our favorite dish of the evening. Aesthetics, by the way, play an important role in the presentation of dishes here, a forte of Ra's kitchen. From the list of entrees, the clam udon ($13.25) drew our notice, but we were told that they had run out of clams. So we opted for a nice chirashi bowl ($12.45) of shrimp, salmon, tuna and yellowtail tossed with avocado, cucumbers, greens and poki sauce over rice.

After waiting for what seemed like an eternity for our table to be cleared, we ordered dessert, then waited some more. When the banana split maki ($6.99) – fried banana topped with whipped cream and bitter kiwi – finally arrived, it was hardly worth the wait. Mango, strawberry and vanilla mochi ($7.69), on the other hand, were heartily devoured, ending things on a positive note.

"Ra" is a plural suffix for pronouns in Japanese, but according to the restaurant's website, Ra is "easy to pronounce and remember and builds on the sushi concept with a sound similar to the word 'raw.'" Further underscoring Ra Sushi's intent to cater to the uninitiated is a guide on the menu outlining the basics of sushi (maki, nigiri, sashimi, etc.). While there's nothing wrong in introducing unfamiliar diners to Japanese cuisine, those wanting a slightly more authentic sushi/lounge experience would be better served elsewhere. What Ra does is merely add to our already substantial body of upscale chains.

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