Itamae Landon Nguyen glances over to the maki rolls his busy team is assembling. He murmurs to someone and instantly the salmon is replaced with a more precisely cut strip. A slight smile appears on the Itamae's face as he keeps his head down focusing on his own order. As guests finish, he asks each one about the sushi and then listens for the answer.
This attention to detail says much for the recently opened 140-seat Akahana Asian Bistro, Bar & Sushi. Restaurateur Yung Cu cut his teeth in the dining rooms and kitchens of area Asian (primarily Japanese) restaurants in Charlotte while a student at UNC Charlotte. Then in Durham, Cu developed a following as an Itamae and opened Akashi Japanese Grill & Sushi, which he sold before opening Akahana in Plaza Midwood.
The interior in this star-crossed space, once imaginatively tikified as an island escape, has grown up. Walls are splashed with red tones, and the prominent sushi bar is back-lit. But the side dining room remains problematic: It needs more intimate dining sections, and televisions are prominent wall fixtures. Akahana is not a big-money restaurant: Opening a successful Asian venture in Plaza Midwood has been a bit dicey in the past, but now that sushi is part of the popular threesome — along with burgers and tacos — who knows?
The menu at Akahana is more than sushi but does reflect the current popular Asian dishes in an assemblage of tediously familiar entrees. Mongolian beef? Check. Pad Thai? Check. Lo Mein, Massamum Curry and Hibachi steak? Yep. It's all here. In fact, the menu has dozens of entrée choices, plus the lengthy sushi list, and 21 starter selections.
I have yet to find a Pad Thai served outside of a Thai restaurant that can stand the scrutiny. Akahana's is no exception. The tangle of noodles lavishly drenched in a spiritless sauce is a less pleasing version of this classic dish. But the early finger, or chopstick, foods shine. Thumbs up to the marvelously flavored chicken satay and the delicate steamed shrimp shumai.
Sushi, though, is the strong suit. The fresh fish, easily viewed in the long glass case along the sushi bar, is bolstered by precisely cut strips of vegetables and enhanced with the expected sauces. This is not high-end sushi, but good quality popular sushi. The Dragon roll is brash and great with slashes of fire tempered by sweet eel and avocado while a sly hint of salty roe seduces the crispy soft shell crab on the Spider roll.
Nigiri is well-priced for the quality. Akahana's signature rolls range from $4 for a California roll to $18 for a 10-piece Poseidon with lobster and shrimp tempura. Additionally, they have a Tuesday and Thursday BOGO offer for all rolls.
With the offering of good sushi, why have Chinese sesame chicken on the roster? Now that the city — après the DNC announcement — seems to be more optimistic, will restaurateurs decide that a business no longer needs to do all things — or have all dishes — for all people? Since our popular tastes have a tendency to change at warp speed, maybe it's better to focus on a business's edge — in this case, the sushi bar.