Taste: Reviews: Fish Tale
“Would you like that wrapped?”
An innocent question, under most circumstances. But in this case, the leftovers were the remains of a generous sushi assortment at Haru, the new Japanese-fusion restaurant in Old City. The clueless server who offered to pack up our unfinished business must not have read the advisory printed on every receipt, mostly for the benefit of takeout customers:
“Raw fish must be consumed immediately!”
Having consumed a fair amount of raw fish on the premises — and none from a day-old doggie bag — I can say that freshness is a strong point at Haru, even if the service is not. The maki rolls are handsomely presented, and the opulently oversize slices of sashimi tuna, salmon, yellowtail, striped bass and Spanish mackerel, laid over softball-size orbs of crisp shredded daikon, will please diners who don’t insist on exotica. This is not a spot for cod tongues, fried frogs or blowfish; you’ll have to visit Manhattan’s more daring sushi dens for that. At Haru, live orange clam is as out there as it gets. Nor does Haru display any overtly decadent tendencies, such as Morimoto’s fondness for foie gras and black caviar, and Nectar’s liberal use of lobster.
It’s what you would expect from a restaurant owned by Benihana, Inc., which has turned to the business of mainstreaming sushi after four decades of bringing stir-fry stuntmen to suburbia. Forty-eight of the 57 teppanyaki restaurants Benihana owns now have sushi bars, and the company is simultaneously developing six other restaurant chains that differ slightly in style and price point. Haru, which means “spring” in Japanese, is its most upscale brand, comprising six units in Manhattan and one in Philadelphia. Its target audience is young professionals who can afford cute cocktails at $10 a pop, and who are likely to hang out for a while if a DJ spins some music. (Haru Philly gets its beat on after 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.)
Behind the brick facade and tall Palladian windows of a retrofitted bank building, two smart-looking bars address the cocktail crowd’s thirst for sake-tinis, sake mojitos, green tea margaritas, and a signature cocktail called the Komodo Dragon, which layers vanilla vodka, coconut rum, pineapple juice and blue curaçao in a martini glass. If stirred, this drink turns an opaque teal color, like a mood ring. It is not nearly as potent as its name suggests. The bar in the center of the high-ceilinged, buttercup-yellow main dining room is the place to scope and be seen, while the upstairs lounge is a dark, cozy retreat with a relaxed vibe and a fireplace. Both rooms are loud.
Because Haru’s vast menu is deepest in appetizers, maki, nigiri and sashimi, grazing across this spectrum is the way to go. The sushi bar has a room of its own, where executive chef Chong You commands a team of chefs attired in neat black caps and kimono-style jackets. They call out cheerful greetings to all who enter, but are otherwise quiet and meticulous as they cut fish and compose platters. Their knifework is always competent and sometimes stunning, as in the usuzukuri appetizer, long ribbons of raw fluke arranged like wheel spokes on a glass plate, sliced so thinly that the glass can be seen through the ultra-sheer fish flesh.
Other highlights include excellent standard-size maki, particularly the creamy-centered spicy tuna rolls and buttery eel-avocado rolls; pleasantly crunchy fried oyster rolls, with sweet mango curry sauce; and a showy spider roll divided into two parts, with a wide-bodied piece of maki holding the meatiest part of a fried soft-shell crab, and the legs posed on a separate pedestal of rice. I preferred the traditional combinations to silly catch-all types like the tobiko-speckled Emerald Roll, with king crab, asparagus, pickled radish and kiwi. On the nigiri, the fish slices are cut long, rather than dainty, to enhance their appeal to Americans who love all things supersized.
The wonderful lemongrass hot and sour soup holds plenty of shrimp and scallop pieces, cellophane noodles, edamame and shiitakes, but the lobster miso soup yielded only a stingy pinch of lobster meat. Forget the flaccid duck spring roll, topped with an insanely sweet black plum-hoisin sauce, but consider the flash-fried agedashi tofu, if only to watch its topping of bonito flakes flutter mysteriously, as if alive (they aren’t), fanned by the heat rising from the warm dashi broth.
There’s a short list of entrées, most of which can be ordered in scaled-down portions as appetizers. The mixed shrimp and vegetable tempura is a safe choice for conservative palates; the grilled garlic shrimp, with a pleasant hot chili pepper kick, is better. The rare wok-seared tuna tastes fine, but its walnut-garlic-soy sauce is such an unappealing shade of brown that it’s hard to enjoy.
Servers in the sushi bar can be pushy, pressing you to order before you’re ready, or to give up your plates before you’re done. In the main dining room, servers seemed oblivious to small details, such as wiping up soup that slopped over the bowls onto the serving plates.
If you must have dessert — don’t feel obliged — green tea ice cream or red bean ice cream are better meal-enders than the four tiny bites of tempura cheesecake. There’s also a fried banana encased in tempura batter, warm but still firm, cut into sections, served with a cruet of chocolate sauce.
We ate three of the four pieces. This time, it was the busboy who posed the inevitable question:
“Would you like that wrapped?”