THE WORLD OF SUSHI WRONG

Ah, sushi! Our passionate romance cooled in 1979 following a raconteur's tale of extended illness caused by the consumption of raw fish in a Japanese restaurant. Yet I harbor no resentments. I still recount with pleasure all those lunch hours I spent absorbed in your company at Hatsuhana on East 48th Street in New York. Who knows? If I were living nearer an ocean, perhaps we'd be closer. Still, it's hard to go back to the way things were, before.

Even so, the urge to be with you sometimes overwhelms me. Just recently the fleshy-cool texture of raw fish, the sinus-clearing kick of green wasabi and the sweet taste of refreshing ginger drove me crazy with desire. I couldn't help myself. I had to seek you out, no matter what the cost or consequence. After all, I knew I could use American Express. You always see to that.

So I make my way to Ninja, a new Japanese restaurant and sushi bar in Chandler. Granted, it is during the holidays when a dining accomplice and I visit, but talk about overdecorated! This place looks like a Japanese Mama Leone's, what with the Christmas lights and tinsel wreaths atop the collision of tastes that is its regular decor. Far from achieving the austere elegance of most Japanese restaurants, the faux bamboo-hut interior of Ninja is cluttered with doodads. Giant aquariums, potted plants, tabletop red silk roses and assorted objets d'art all compete for the eye's attention. The same lack of aesthetics can be observed in Ninja's presentation. That perfectionist's eye for detail which is quintessentially Japanese is clearly missing. Carrots here are not carved to represent plum or cherry blossoms, they are simply sliced carrots. Similarly, compared to the glorious hillocks of bok choy I've viewed elsewhere, Ninja's shredded cabbage is piled into mundane mounds. When two of our plates show up decorated with the most institutional of American garnishes--the parsley sprig and orange slice--I begin to wonder if Ninja's chef has any pride at all.

The restaurant smells of heavy grease on the afternoon we visit. We are seated in a private booth, on silk pillows placed upon a tatami bench. Our waitress wears traditional Japanese dress of kimono, divided socks and sandals. She has a pleasant personality, but our service is uneven. Though there are only two parties in the entire restaurant, we experience long waits between delivery of the various dishes we have ordered.

The two sushi chefs at work behind the bar are young and dimpled. Their level of concentration is fierce. Samurai swords hang behind them on the wall, giving the appearance that seppuku is still an option if things really get bad back there.

The order in which we receive our meal is interesting. First up are two bowls of iceberg lettuce doused liberally with thick pink Thousand Island dressing. I'm disappointed Ninja hasn't created its own dressing from some combination of soy sauce, ginger, sesame and rice vinegar. Of course, more authentic still would be a sunomono salad of marinated cucumbers.

Two steaming bowls of miso soup are brought next. I am surprised when our kimono-clad waitress gives us each a plastic Chinese-style soup spoon. "Shouldn't we drink it from the bowl?" I ask her. "Miso soup very hot," she responds. Okay, so we let it cool, sip away and fish the cubes of tofu out with our chopsticks. What's the big deal?

But this is how it goes at Ninja. Authenticity is eroded at every opportunity: the salad, the spoons, the garnishes, the presentation. The Disneyland principle appears to guide Ninja's operation: Give them a little bit of the flavor of Japanese dining, but don't make it too hard for them.

Happily, Ninja's sushi seems relatively uncompromised. As I am simply reacquainting myself with my old pal, I do not plunge into exotica, but sample the "easy stuff." California roll and cucumber roll (kappamaki) are not spectacular enough to be labeled art, but meet the basic criteria of good texture, taste and appearance.

Next out is an order of gyoza, Japanese pan-fried meat dumplings, not unlike what the Chinese call "pot stickers." While the flavor is quite satisfying, some of the gyoza have been overfried, rendering the dumpling wrappers crackly-stiff and difficult to chew. I miss the spicy chile-oil sauce that usually accompanies these Japanese dumplings; what we receive instead is a bland version of the soy-sauce-green-onion-sesame-oil concoction typically served with pot stickers.

A long wait commences after we have finished off the gyoza. Our waitress is busy delivering a lunch to the other party in the dining room. She stops by to tell us the rest of our lunch will be out soon. We pour more green tea and lounge on the tatami. It's raining out. We're in no hurry to go anywhere.

For $15.50, the beef teriyaki with sushi combination is a definite disappointment. The two items are served on a large ceramic platter busily decorated with a stretched fishnet design. The beef is room temperature, chewy, untrimmed and covered with a caramelized teriyaki sauce. Thank goodness for the small bowl of hot sticky rice brought on the side--I need something to warm this meal up.

As far as the sushi is concerned, the tuna, salmon and shrimp are pleasant without being outstanding. Less pleasing is the yellowtail sushi, which possesses a muddy, fishy flavor. As with the others, it is skillful without being artful.

A bowl of tempura udon soup features thick wheat noodles in saporous beef broth topped with fish cake and light-battered eggplant, zucchini and shrimp. One side effect of introducing tempura into soup is to make it incredibly gloppy--unless you gobble the fried stuff fast. Unfortunately, we don't.

Dessert is limited at Ninja, as it is at most Japanese restaurants. We sample two types of ice cream: green tea and tempura-fried. The former is pale green and boasts a mild flavor. The latter sports a soft-textured, sweet fried coating over vanilla ice cream. If you have room, try either one.

As it stands now, Ninja is a confusing place. From its cluttered decor to the presence of salt and pepper shakers (!) on each table, diners here receive a melange of messages. At these prices, I feel entitled to greater authenticity and aesthetics. Perhaps a trip to North Scottsdale would prove educational for the manager of Ninja. The folks who run Yamakasa know what I'm talking about.

Needless to say, my visit to Ninja rekindles my old lust for sushi. It doesn't take much. Three days later I'm on the phone to the same dining accomplice. I've got a major jones for green horseradish, ginger and American Express. He agrees to accompany me to Banzai I, pronto. It turns out he feels the same way.

Banzai I, because it aspires to be less than Ninja, gets off a little easier. The quality of the food is about par, but it costs less; because I don't expect as much, it seems like more. Get it?

The atmosphere here is cleaner, less cluttered than its Chandler counterpart. Despite table service and a small sushi bar, Banzai still has a quick in-quick out feel to it left over from the days when it was part of the Japanese fast-food biz. Though Banzai is trying hard to rise above its beginnings, at best it's still a casual eatery. There are definitely fancier places to go for Japanese cuisine.

But none that is homier. Here at Banzai, there are regulars. They belly up to the sushi bar where they know the young sushi chef by name. They exchange macho tales of raw seafood consumed in L.A. or Cabo San Lucas. They make and receive calls on their mobile phones.

Which brings up an important question: Why are there always guys with expensive hightop sneakers and mobile phones at sushi bars? Did I watch too many episodes of Miami Vice, or do these guys really do what they look like they do? One can't help but wonder.

Behind the sushi bar is a refrigerated wall of beer and wine. We opt for green tea and soda, but the selection of beverages at Banzai is impressive.

Sadly, gyoza here are a sorry misinterpretation of the delicious Japanese dumplings I've come to know and love. The crux of the problem? Banzai's kitchen seems to have gyoza confused with Chinese egg rolls. It serves them deep-fried, with hot mustard. Most unusual. (Note: For great all-around gyoza, check out Teriyaki of Japan in Tempe.)

Banzai's sushi is adequate, but looks more roughhewn than at Ninja. The taste and textures are fine--especially the octopus--but speed seems to take precedence over precision here. The rice on the outside of our California roll is falling off. The tuna roll is cut into uneven pieces.

Of the two noodle dishes we try, I prefer the hot ramen soup to the cold ramen salad. Sure, the noodles are the same sold in those Styrofoam cups in the supermarket, but this soup has savory pieces of chicken teriyaki and vegetables like bok choy and zucchini in it. The cold ramen has nothing going for it. Worst of all, it's drenched with soy sauce.

Because it's cheap and fairly convenient, I could see myself popping into Banzai for a quick sushi fix every now and then. Oh, yeah, didn't I make that clear? Sushi and I are back together--if only for an occasional rendezvous when I've got nothing else going on.

So if you're in a sushi bar late one night and you see a woman with a glazed look in her eyes eating an inordinate amount of ginger and wasabi, clutching a worn American Express card, be kind. Remember, I'm in love.

Ninja, 2330 North Alma School, Chandler, 899-3423. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 5 to 10:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; 2:30 to 10:30 p.m., Saturday; 4:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sunday.

Banzai I, 7811 North 12th Street, Phoenix, 944-2291. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday; noon to 10 p.m., Saturday; closed Sunday.

ninja

This place looks like a Japanese Mama Leone's, what with the Christmas lights and tinsel wreaths atop its regular decor. anywhere

Why are there always guys with expensive hightop sneakers and mobile phones at sushi bars?

Sushi and I are back together--if only for an occasional rendezvous when I've got nothing else going on.

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