Sushi Nice

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

I tried a few of the nigiri pieces too, that night, to see how the restaurant did with those: The tuna was as red as a ruby and had the delicate, full flavor of freshness, as opposed to the leaden flavor of elderly tuna. The unagi—freshwater eel—was served hot, the sweet, meaty flesh rich as cake.

On other nights, as I said, the fish was just average, though, and I was sad. Still, there were some interesting items. One was a chef's inspiration of minced salmon tossed with cilantro, curry, and a mayonnaise freshened with juice pressed from a fresh orange as we watched. Another was a gorgeous rendition of the classic black cod marinated in miso and soy and grilled: It was as tender as tears, and rich as a Vanderbilt, which you'd have to be to get in the habit of ordering this, because it costs $16.95.

In fact, I think the reason Anemoni has been mostly empty every time I've visited is because the prices are in serious need of adjustment. Miso soup is $3.95, for instance. A grilled hamachi collar is $12.95, and most nigiri sushi costs one to three dollars an order more than it does at rival restaurants. It's easy to spend more at Anemoni right now than you would on dinner for two at La Belle Vie, and that just isn't going to fly.

The oysters are on a par with what they cost elsewhere, however. There are usually 10 varieties on offer, shucked to order, priced between $1.95 and $2.95 each, and served prettily on beds of salt decorated with star anise. You'll probably want to get some when you're at Azia for happy hour—for the sushi and oysters from Anemoni are available throughout Azia, and happy hour is what Azia is all about.

Really, you cannot hope to understand adjacent Azia unless you grasp the genius of the restaurant's Happy Hour—or, as it should be called, their Happy Most-Of-The-Time. Every day from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. and from 10:00 p.m. till close (usually 2:00 a.m.) they offer a whole bunch of $3 beers and half-price bottles of wine, half-price sakes and select cocktails, and a raft of half-price appetizers. These half-price sakes are what draw me, personally, to the place. With two dozen offerings, Azia has the largest sake list in town, and is particularly strong on regional rarities, like the beautifully subtle Rihaku, from the Shimane prefecture, which smells something like honeysuckle, celery, and bay mist, as detected from two blocks away. This Rihaku is something I'd never spring for at $18 a glass, but am happy to splurge on at $9 during happy hour.

Everyone else in town obviously feels the same way, because while most restaurants around here start rolling up the rugs at 9:00, that's just when Azia starts to get rolling these days, as groups stake out tables and wait for the happy hour to start. And there are a lot of tables to choose from: There are the ones in the stylish Caterpillar Lounge, halfway up the block on 26th Street; the many in the main acreage of Azia; and now the 20 or so in Anemoni.

In fact, when I called owner Tom Pham on the phone to ask about doings at Azia, I asked whether it weren't true that many of the SUVs stacked up at the Azia valet on weekend nights in fact belong to the parents of Azia happy-hour regulars who've come into the city to take their kids out for dinner?

"That's exactly right!" laughed Pham. "We have a lot of young people and [restaurant] industry people, and you get to know them, and then there they are in the dining room, with the whole family, and you almost don't recognize them! When I was getting ready to open [Azia, in 2002] all my friends and family were like, 'You're freaking out of your mind.' Six or seven restaurants had been in [the Azia space] since 1997, and there was a reason they weren't making it: They were too narrowly focused. With our menu and drink menu, and the happy hour, you can come here and spend $3 for a drink, or $30 or $40 for dinner. You never know if the person next to you is going to be wearing a $3,000 suit, or is camped out waiting for happy hour."

Speaking of happy hour, Azia's shows every sign of getting stronger. For instance, Pham can move so much wine in a single evening that Azia has become the destination of choice for wine distributors looking to unload a few cases of something high-end, fast, at cost. (Distributors do this because Azia blows through the wine in question so quickly that it doesn't diminish the overall value of the wine in the marketplace.)

"The Loring was the first bar I went to in Minneapolis," Pham told me. "And I loved the way there were so many different kinds of people, all together in the same place. That's what I always wanted for Azia. Now I see so many regulars in the neighborhood, and so many neighbors in my restaurant, and I can't think why everyone isn't in the restaurant business—I just love it so much."

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