An Onigiri Superhero

Food for tiny superheros
Kathy Easthagen
Midori's Floating World Café
3011 27th Ave. S., Minneapolis

I have got some very hot information, information that is very, very possibly going to knock the socks completely off your nearest 10-year-old. The news is this: Pokémon eat onigiri!

What? you ask, dumbfounded. Why, when I was chained to the couch by my nearest 10-year-old, watching such critical episodes of the Japanese cartoon as "Here Comes the Squirtle Squad," "Primeape Goes Bananas," or the profound yet lighthearted "Snubble Snobbery," the translation clearly indicated that the Pokémon were eating donuts, or, alternately, popcorn balls!

No, quit arguing with me, Pokémon eat onigiri, the everyday Japanese snack of rice molded into a ball, often a three-sided ball, usually filled with a bit of pickle or salted plum, and decorated with a handy strip of nori, to make them more finger-friendly. Why would those donuts have strips of nori on them? Advantage, mine! More critically: How could pocket monsters fight effectively on a mere diet of processed sugar? Would they not be rendered alternately hyper and lethargic, and dissolve into tears over such small provocations as losing their socks?

And yes, yes, I do know that Pokémon are kind of past their cultural moment, that we now dwell in the time of Yugioh, but this is not the kind of information I could have released into a restless population in 1999, as we had no onigiri, and your nearest 10-year-old would have snubbed the snobble right out of you. No, only now, only in 2003, do we have Midori's Floating World, a wee little sweetheart of a Japanese restaurant near Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue, which is unlike any other Japanese restaurant in town just because of those onigiri, because at lunch, if you put some onigiri on the table with some vegetables and a bit of grilled fish, Midori's is less like a restaurant, and more like being cared for by your favorite Japanese aunt.

Onigiri, which cost $1.50 each, are an odd thing to rave about; it's kind of like being on fire about, oh, I don't know, what's the most average, common-denominator American food, the thing we eat when we're not thinking about eating? Toast? Cereal? A quesadilla? Something in there. But imagine if you were in an American restaurant in Uzbekistan, and there was no toast! Midori's is the kind of place you can get toast, albeit the Japanese kind, made of rice molded into friendly little triangles wrapped around bits of pickled kelp or plums. After a month of visiting the quiet spot, I have come to think of the serene little room as the most budget-friendly, rice-first, plain-and-simple Japanese restaurant in town.

It took me a while to figure this out. I went to Midori's when it first opened, last winter, and left with a distinct "Is that all there is?" impression. The one gimmick of the place, Hawaiian-style sushi made with Hormel's Spam, is, unfortunately, made with Hormel's Spam. While I have brought this to the attention of the Geneva Convention nations' war-crimes tribunal, they have done nothing. The other sushi I tried was nothing special; with the notable exception of the oshizushi, it has remained pedestrian. And so, while the place clearly had a marvelous tea list, a nice number of noodle dishes, and was a little cheaper than most Japanese spots, it just didn't seem to pass the threshold to being a place I could enthusiastically recommend.

However, once they got their beer and wine license last May I went back, and decided to start chasing down some of the more obscure corners of the menu. Eureka! There are a number of things at Midori's that are fantastic, and a number of things for which it is the only outpost in town, and when you are ordering those, the place is truly great. And otherwise the place is nice and simple and cheaper than most, and serves Japanese beers and the usual sakes, so if you forget your notes you should still be okay.

When I talk about the place being rice-first, that's a way of saying it is truly, truly Japanese: In Japanese the word for cooked rice, gohan, is the same as that for meal. It would not be so extraordinary if you were to begin a nice meal with sake (rice wine), move on to various courses of rice topped with bits of fish or vegetable which you would pair with a glass of, say, hojicha, a green tea amplified with malty roasted rice, and then round out the meal with ochazuke, a rice-tea soup, or even mochi, desserts based on glutinous rice. I mean--rice!

That ochazuke at Midori is one of my favorite dishes of the year: What it is is a large bowl with rice at the bottom, a bit of wasabi, a confetti of seaweed and other flavorings up top, and the flooding addition of green tea, for $6.75. It's pure and plain, the clear taste of rice buoyed up by the herbal lightness of the tea and the wisps of salt and fire from nori and wasabi. It's like eating a bowl of bay mist, all nuance and drift. For another dollar you can add a grilled piece of salmon or a scattering of pickled plums. I think the version with salmon is amazing; the mist of the soup plays against the rich texture of the fish and the char of its grilling--marvelous. With the antioxidants in the green tea and the omega-3s in the fish, is this the healthiest soup in town?

You can have the healthiest food in town with the most historical sushi in town. Why, did you know that nigiri sushi, the usual kind made with a finger of fish on a finger of rice, is a 20th-century art? Back in the day, the pre-refrigeration day, sushi was a way of salting and preserving fish and the usual way of sushi was to layer the fish in the bottom of a mold, layer rice upon it, unmold, slice and serve, like a smallish meatloaf. Midori's is the only place I know of in town that serves this classic oshizushi ($7.50), and it is a must-try for anyone who wants to understand sushi more deeply.

Plus, it's very tasty. My favorite is the saba, in which mackerel is pickled and sweetened, laid down on a layer of translucent kelp, yellowish like old cellophane, and pressed with the rice. It looks like a slab of oiled marble, and has a whole rainbow of savory, subtle, foggy herring flavors, flavors that take you back to the origins of sushi and showcase the meaty simplicity that sushi can achieve. The shrimp version is very nice, too; layers of cooked shrimp made with a very sweet vinegar, glistening beneath the kelp like pink tiles.

Try the oshizushi alongside a cup of the chawan-mushi ($3.75), and you will have a dinner better than that at most of our four-star restaurants, at a fraction of the price. In fact, the dish reminded me of the "seafood cappuccino" at Vincent, except better: It's a subtle eggy custard, barely gelled, holding beneath its beige surface bits of mushroom, shrimp, and more. The custard dissolves sensually on the tongue, leaving behind all the sun-and-fish subtlety of the broth, and a little treat to chew on. Once you try it, you will be back.

The chef responsible for this wonder, Ben Todoriki, is very talented. His tamago, the egg custard, is made utterly correctly, with dozens of tiny layers of omelet, and served cut and wrapped around itself in the most beautiful way, like a Henry Moore sculpture. In sushi sometimes there is a palpable difference between skill and ingredients, and I hope the restaurant gets some more customers so that Todoriki can get some top-shelf fish to work with, because I think then the place will be perfect.

Midori Mori Flomer, who owns the restaurant with her husband John Flomer, says that a sushi bar actually wasn't meant to be their first order of business. "My husband and I originally wanted to open a tea shop, but in the process it somehow turned into a Japanese restaurant," she says. "We wanted to do something a little more home-style Japanese than what's here, and so we spend a lot of time answering questions: 'What's this, what's this, what's this?' But once they find out, they are hooked."

Which seems to be the cultural moment of now: Everyone knows sushi, or thinks they do, but everything else might as well be donuts, or popcorn balls. If sushi is to Japan as hamburgers are to America, the juggernaut export, we finally have a place to get toast, and grilled cheese, and pancakes, and to get our socks knocked off by someone else's comfort food.

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