Cafe Reviews


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.

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Penelope Corcoran