East Meets Midwest

After putting down your chopsticks at the end of a meal at Azuki, you may be tempted to ask: Did this restaurant get lost? Doesn't it belong in San Francisco, where nondescript neighborhood Japanese restaurants often soar into the realm of the downright dazzling?

This little Stadium Village Japanese place doesn't look like much: It's got spartan decor and seating for about 24. But the menu holds surprises. If you're ready to be reinvigorated by sushi, order the Rice Paper Roll ($12). It's more akin to a Vietnamese spring roll than to a typical order of maki. Its contents (tuna, salmon, mock crab, avocado, cucumber, and lettuce) are stuffed into that soft, translucent wrapping that makes spring rolls so easy to enjoy. It's like naked maki-style sushi: Stripped of the rice and nori (seaweed) wrapper, the individual pieces are light to the point of defying gravity. An accompanying dipping sauce, splashed into an artfully swirled Zen circle around the circumference of the plate, adds a powerful (but adjustable) kick of heat and sweetness to each bite.

Bento boxes ($12-$15) are a great value. A beef negimaki box ($12) came with six elegant little rolls of beef curled around green onions, three shrimp pot stickers, edamame, steamed rice, a salad, miso soup, and six California rolls. Starting with the California rolls: These things remind you how phoned-in other California rolls tend to be once you leave the West Coast. The Azuki rolls are yielding to the teeth and gentle on the palate—they don't fall apart, but they don't act like vaguely crab-flavored chewing gum, either. If you've never had a California roll you've enjoyed, these are well worth a shot. And the pot stickers aren't grease bombs—they're perfectly fried and surprisingly light. The negimaki were tender and had a perfect blend of sweet teriyaki sauce and salty, powerful beef flavor.

An appetizer portion of tempura (shrimp, taro, sweet potato, and Japanese eggplant for $6) was also disarmingly good. The batter had been fried into a coating that was incredibly crispy and light, each bite yielding a delicious shower of crunchy bits.

An order of tuna nigiri ($5)—about as reliable a benchmark of sushi house quality as you can find—was in keeping with what you'd expect from a solid California Japanese joint. The fish tasted, for lack of a better word, "loose"—gentle and freshly flavorful, not tough or refrigerated. Moreover, the fish was draped to cover the rice entirely, actually touching the plate on both ends. That's generous.

Azuki is an easy place to overlook, but that would be a shame. Service is warm and friendly, prices are fair, the menu's unpretentious but laced with the unexpected, and hey—plane fare to San Francisco isn't exactly cheap these days.

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