Sushi Nice

New Azia annex Anemoni adds a little more style to Minneapolis's Asian restaurant nightlife

Anemoni Sushi and Oyster Bar, at Azia
2550 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
612.813.1200
www.aziarestaurant.com

Well, it's official. In Minneapolis, for the under-35s, Asian is the new nice. Not nice like Minnesota nice, but nice like a step above grubby, a step below totally dolled up. Where are we going? Someplace nice. For a previous generation, nice was European-ish, Frenchy, Italiany. Not Italianate, mind you, which means something consciously done in an Italian style, but, you know, Italiany, with rough plaster, bloody Marys, and mayonnaise-artichoke dip. No more. Nice is officially now Asian.

Think about it: All of the nice bars are now either totally Asian, or kinda Asian. Chino Latino. The bar scene at the Minneapolis Fuji-Ya. Downtown's Nami, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar, just opened a big, sexy slate-and-moss-colored lounge, replete with a DJ booth area and a new list of top-shelf martinis with more kick than a mule in a shock collar. The sexy, dimly lit Martini Blu at the Grand Hotel is sushi-oriented. The lounge at the King & I is Thai-ish. The best wine list in Uptown is at Chiang Mai Thai, where they also have a hopping bar scene. The happy hour at Sushi Tango is so popular people are stacked up like it's the Power Tower at Valley Fair. And Azia has essentially become, for a new generation, the new Loring.

Jana Freiband

Basically, I'd say there are only three sorts of drinking to be done in town for Gen-X/Gen-Ys right now—there are the rock bars with rock style/old-man style/no style, from Big V's to the Red Dragon to all the rest; there are the Top 40 dipshit barely-legal bars (you know who you are); and then there are the Asian ones. Okay, I'll admit the existence of the Loring Pasta Bar and a couple of wine bars—but those are the exceptions that prove the rule, right?

In any case, I had fun reaching my conclusions. My fun was had visiting Azia to check out their new sushi bar, Anemoni, a full sushi and oyster bar situated where the long, lost, lamented old Garage D'Or record store used to be. And yes, it's kinda weird to see big piles of ice and fresh bivalves where there used to be nothing but dusty crates of records and punk rock bands playing in-stores, but at least the punk rock hipsterati can now experience the same sense of ambivalent loss that fashonistas feel about Dayton's and oldsters feel as they write out their checks to Minnegasco. Is this what it really means to be from Minneapolis, to feel the constant ambivalent loss of things no one can control? Well, break into groups and discuss, because I have some restaurant reviewing to do.

When I first heard Anemoni was opening, I assumed it would be a fairly low-key operation, subservient to the larger Azia project. But in fact it's a full sushi bar as large as many Japanese restaurants. In fact, the ice and oyster areas in the back are bigger than those at most local fish markets. The beautifully redone room Anemoni is has a silvery, watery, twilight-in-the-mists look to it: The ceiling is lit with beams of light that bounce through reflecting water pools so that it seems as if the whole room quivers with ripples. To complete the watery effect, a local artist built a little wooden boat—yes, a full boat—near the front of the restaurant, in which parties of six or fewer can dine.

In charge of sushi operations is Chef Kenji Sakamoto, who is originally from Japan but spent the last few years working in Aspen, Colorado, and has designed a sushi menu that is slightly more adventurous, and slightly more refined, than what we commonly see in Minneapolis. I say this because many of the on-the-menu offerings are the off-the-beaten-path things you usually have to buddy up to the sushi chefs to get, such as dried tuna flakes (bonito) and salmon caviar curled together on the salmon sashimi, or gummy Japanese yams incorporated into a tuna roll.

I've had various experiences at Azia. On one visit I was astonished at the freshness of the fish, the beauty of the compositions, the delicacy of the flavors, and I did cartwheels all the way home. On other occasions the quality seemed more average, and now I can't tell if that was just because my expectations were jacked sky-high by that initial visit. You can certainly chase the dragon of my first visit, as I know I will.

Oh, that first visit! The sashimi of salmon was so buttery and delicate, the luscious qualities perfectly offset by the rough salt of bonito flakes and the liquid pop of salmon caviar ($9 for a half-order, or $16 for a large one). The striped bass sashimi was ghost-pale, had the vaporous scent of the sea, and was given even more buoyancy by a scattering of garlic-touched tobiko and scallions cut as thinly as typed I's. A long, flat loaf of oshizushi, that sushi that is pressed into shape in a box, had various sea critters of contrasting texture and color arranged as carefully as a mosaic, so that the dark tuna, bright salmon, porcelain shrimp, and confetti of snow crab meat made each bite as satisfying as anything is when it's carefully and thoughtfully done.

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