Anemoni Sushi and Oyster Bar, at Azia
2550 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
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.
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.
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."
And a new crop of Minneapolis bar-goers love him back. In fact, the boat in the front of Anemoni was built by a local artist and furniture maker in exchange for a tab at Azia's bar. Yes, you read that right, Azia's customers love the place enough to build boats on dry land. Nice!