Depending on your perspective, the dining landscape in Lakeville is either a rich cornucopia or a barren wasteland. Cruise down Cedar Avenue into the 150s and 160s and you'll see Blimpie, Red Robin, Papa John's, Baker's Square, Old Chicago, Taco Bell, Perkins, and Sbarro. An Applebee's restaurant sports a sign that proudly proclaims: "Pump it up: TV sound now on."
The newly opened Ronin Sushi Cafe stands out for two reasons: It's not affiliated with a fast-food empire, and it has created a warm, distinctive approach to dining. Among other things, that means table service and eclectically artful serving ware.
An ambitious menu of tea choices (including a sweet green tea for $2.75 that was stirringly flavorful and pleasant) further sets the place apart from its cut-and-paste neighbors—an appropriate stance, perhaps, for a restaurant named after a samurai without a master.
Despite the "sushi cafe" name, Ronin also offers a variety of Thai noodle dishes, salads, and curries. That turns out to be fortunate, as the sushi still needs work. Flavors, by and large, are well balanced, and the quality of the fish is fine. But if you're a sushi lover, you know that the food lives or dies on the quality of its rice. It should be sticky, tender, and glossy. It's not quite right at Ronin, at least not yet. Underdone or otherwise imperfectly prepared rice distracted from the generally well-executed sushi, as did slices of lemon served next to an order of tuna nigiri.
But the Thai food really shines.
In contrast to the funky, jungle-like layered taste of pad thai at a place like Ruam Mit Thai, Ronin's version ($10.95 with chicken) plays to an American palate, using clean, bright flavors. It beautifully balances the dish's comforting sticky noodles with snappy little pieces of red onion. The chicken was nicely browned and tender, vegetable elements were snappy and fresh—the ingredients, in short, were treated with real respect.
Rad nah ($7.95 plus $2 to $4 depending on protein) is typically served in American Thai restaurants as an austere combination of broccoli or other green, fat, fluffy rice noodles, a protein such as chicken or beef, and a strongly soy-inflected sauce. At Ronin, the dish came out submerged in a bowl of broth, practically a soup. A waitress picked up on customer skepticism like a hawk diving for a sparrow.
"The old [Thai] people will yell at us if we don't have lots of broth in it," the waitress said, gesturing toward the big bowl. "It's the way we make it in Thailand—it's more like chow mein." And so it was, and it was quite good, at that. The spice level (a 2 on the restaurant's very clearly described one-to-five scale) was spot-on, the Chinese broccoli was crispy and fresh, and the chicken was, again, handled with expertise. Most pleasantly, the noodles were fat with broth and flavor.
It's certainly not the sort of thing you'd experience at Applebee's—and that's precisely the point.
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