Cafe Reviews

Big Fish, Mall Pond

Given perfect hindsight, most of us would have been a whole lot smarter when we were 12 years old. To this day, I dearly wish I had been. At this tender time of my life, I was living in Japan, land of gorgeous gardens, show-stopping fashion and some of the most incredible food on the planet. What beauty was spread before me then.

Yet I was more interested in seeing how much chocolate I could sneak to the Koi in the garden ponds without making the fish sick, collecting Hello Kitty paraphernalia and eating hot dogs (plain) at the American Club coffee shop.

Even years later, after moving to the Arizona desert, I didn't understand what I had tossed away. I began to appreciate Japanese food more, feasting on tonkatsu, udon and sashimi at Osome, what I believe was the Valley's first Japanese restaurant. It was in an odd neighborhood, at Seventh Avenue and Osborn, but endearingly authentic, with its elegant tatami floors, traditional low-slung tables and a policy of requiring guests to remove their shoes. The food was marvelous, but so readily accessible that I took it for granted.

Over the next few years, I made several return visits to the Land of the Rising Sun, and, taken under the wing of a very kind Tokyo family, finally discovered the breathless magic that is true Japanese food. They delighted in exposing me to their edible secrets, laughing at my grimaces (squid on a stick?), glowing with pride when my face lit up in undeniable pleasure. Every day was a whirlwind of ecstasy: baby eels plucked from a tank and swallowed live, bittersweet pickles taken with gelatinous rice, kushiyaki, buttery Kobe and endless discoveries of mysterious seafood, exotic vegetables and snatched-from-Eden fruits.

And so it was that when Osome shut down in the mid-1980s, I finally took a good look around me, suddenly realizing how very alone I was in our Valley of the Sun. We had Ayako and Tokyo Express, but those were pretty much our only choices, and Americanized teppanyaki or fast food, no matter how nicely done, simply doesn't deliver the absolute Japanese experience.

Flash forward to the late '90s. The Valley had awakened, its landscape strewn with Japanese restaurants. Asian dining thrived even in former culinary no man's lands like Gilbert and west Phoenix. Many were, and continue to be, quite excellent (some of my favorites include Sushi on Shea, Hiro Sushi and Yamakasa). Yet, there wasn't one restaurant that sang to me in that classic Oriental voice of simplicity, pure goodness and energy.

Now it's 2000. And though it's taken almost 20 years of waiting, I've finally found my Japanese utopia in the Valley. I've discovered Hapa Sushi Lounge, opened almost a year ago as a side room to Restaurant Hapa, which has received critical acclaim for its innovative Pacific Rim-influenced fare.

Why has it taken so long for me to visit? In truth, I had imagined the lounge to be a mere adjunct to Restaurant Hapa (the whole thing's housed in a strip mall), assuming that chef-owners James and Stacey McDevitt would pour their passion into their primary dining room. Besides, as ever in this town, sushi is sushi is sushi.

It took a trip last month to Nobu in New York, in fact, to inspire my Hapa visit. A partnership of actor Robert De Niro and world-renowned chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, Nobu is considered to be America's premier experience for Japanese dining. In my book, it is. After indulging in omakase (a multicourse chef's choice dinner) that brought such luxuries as tuna tartare with caviar in wasabi broth and buttery seared whitefish with soy and citrus on toasted nori, I knew I needed to find something similar in the Valley.

I'm very proud of Hapa Sushi Lounge -- it competes head-on with Nobu and, to my recollection, many better Japanese restaurants. It also costs plenty -- completing the entire omakase at Hapa runs me a staggering $132 per person before tax and tip. Oh, but it's worth it.

Ironically, my favorite dining adventure at Hapa Sushi involves virtually no sushi. As traditionalists like to point out, sushi actually is the sweetened vinegar rice that is a base for fish and veggie rolls. And, in fact, through my 10-course chef's tasting, there's only a single dish containing any rice. And unlike any other sushi experience I've enjoyed, this progressive dinner pairs plates with wine, sake, sparkling wine and champagne.

Note: Diners can order individual items off Hapa Sushi's compact menu (sans alcohol), and can even break the multicourse dinners into segments -- I split mine over two visits. The only thing that chef Nobu Fukuda asks is that diners not jump around on his menu -- selections complement each other in ascending order. Also, be aware that Hapa Sushi's printed menu is a guide; Fukuda substitutes ingredients and wines for daily availability, and some listed courses may not be available at all.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet