We've all heard the old saying about the importance of first impressions, but in the restaurant biz, it's no mere cliché. With so many dining options these days, people expect their initial experience at a new spot to be better than so-so it'd better be darn good, if not flat-out fantastic, to merit a second visit.
But how often is your first impression of a place so dazzling, so vivid, that you still talk about it months later?
It's a rare thing, indeed. And here I am, five months after my first visit to Hana Japanese Eatery, with a crystal-clear recollection of what went down that day.
Hana Japanese Eatery
Hana Japanese Eatery, 5524 North Seventh Avenue
Asari sake mushi: $7.95
Salmon sushi (2 pieces): $5
Yakibuta ramen: $8.95
Hana an mitsu: $4.95
602-973-1238, web link.
Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m.; Friday through Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.
The place hadn't been open long, and one of my Chowhound-ish friends had already done some early reconnaissance. "The sushi at Hana is dee-lish you gotta try it," she said. "Want to meet me for lunch?"
Okay, twist my arm. It felt a little too early to pounce on such a new restaurant, but ultimately, it was worth it I went right back to the office and blogged about it.
Anyway, based on the quality of the sushi that landed on our table oversized slabs of fresh aji, silky sake, and buttery hamachi, elegantly draped over compact rice balls I was immediately impressed with Hana.
Then there was a sudden fuss over at the sushi bar, where a handful of solo diners were ooh-ing and aah-ing, holding up their camera phones to get shots of sushi chef Rick Hashimoto lifting an enormous piece of tuna onto the counter.
I've never seen such a mammoth fish in real life, and really, this was just half of the creature, from the fins to the tail. It was at least three feet long, and looked like it weighed 150 pounds. Hashimoto handled it with ease, grinning the whole time while swiftly slicing it apart with a sharp, gleaming knife. Within minutes, our waitress came over to offer fresh bluefin sashimi.
Talk about setting the bar high. But in subsequent visits, Hashimoto and other members of his family sister Lori, mom Kinue and her husband, Kazuto Kishino, Lynn Becker, and Ruth Mascardo pulled it off (if not in spectacle, then in doting service and awesome food).
Hana might be their first Phoenix restaurant, but it's definitely not this family's debut in the culinary world. Hashimoto started his career in local Japanese restaurants like Kyoto and Shogun as a teenager, and later owned a restaurant in California before working for Wolfgang Puck. His mother is a formally trained chef-instructor and his stepfather has decades of experience opening high-end teppanyaki places in Japan and the States. Locally, he opened the now-defunct Ayako at the Biltmore.
On every one of my visits to Hana, I couldn't resist Hashimoto's superb sushi. One time, dining alone, I ordered so much that he sent it out on one of those big wooden boat trays, garnished with a flaming sugar cube, pats of pale green wasabi shaped like leaves, and a small, whole fried fish (which I promptly devoured, to the amazement of my server). I was impressed with the variety of daily specials, too, including king mackerel, striped bass, halibut, and giant clam.
I could eat sashimi all day, but I'm glad I branched out into the rest of the menu.
Asari sake mushi was one of the biggest hits with my dining companions. I didn't bother to count the shells, but it was at least a couple dozen small, tender clams steamed in sake and soy, with slivers of ginger floating in the fragrant broth. For the price, a very generous portion.
We also gobbled up the poki chips, a daily special that's been making a lot of encore appearances lately. It was a platter of crisp fried wonton triangles topped with an addicting mix of crab, diced raw tuna, cucumber, sriracha (Thai chile sauce), ponzu, and black sesame seeds.
Tempura soba and yakibuta ramen were filling entree-sized soups, both in a light, soy-based broth. The perfectly cooked soba noodles had a hint of sweetness, which complemented the crisp, batter-fried shrimp and sweet vegetables such as squash, carrot, and green bean. As for the ramen, it was topped with spinach, fish cake, and several slices of slow-cooked pork that were lean but very tender.
A combination dinner of teppanyaki-style choice ribeye and sea scallops was perhaps the most surprising dish, not only for the sheer quantity of food, but also for the quality. Five plump scallops showed up first, all beautifully seared and moist inside, with delicious seasoning. Next came the juicy steak, which was nicely caramelized on the outside. A steaming bowl of rice and an interesting variety of vegetables (including okra, lotus root, and yama imo, Japanese mountain yam) rounded out the feast.
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For dessert, tempura ice cream was a Japanese twist on fried ice cream that wouldn't strike American diners as unfamiliar. But the "Hana an mitsu" sure would. This traditional summery dish combines chilled cubes of sweet jelly, mandarin oranges, a scoop of ice cream, and a blob of red bean paste. Mix it all up, and it's like sweet, fruity Jell-O soup. It might be an acquired taste, but I liked it.
What I'll likely order again, though, is the plum wine ice cream, something I'd never heard of before trying it here. I couldn't detect any alcohol in it, but that didn't matter what hooked me were candy-like chunks of plum mixed into it. No matter how much I gorge on sushi, I could always make room for plum wine ice cream.
That was my last impression of Hana, and you know what? It was just as good as the first.