Jan 292012
 

I avoided Friends Sushi for years because of its reputation as “the cheap sushi place” featuring sub-$10 lunch boxes and $1 sushi on Mondays. Having been an early and enthusiastic recipient of Anthony Bourdain’s culinary wisdom nearly a dozen years ago via Kitchen Confidential, I know that Monday fish specials are bad news. I still haven’t visited Friends on sushi Monday, but have to grudgingly admit that this place is pretty good.

And it is cheap. Do you know why? Smaller nigiri for starters. What would be a two-bite affair at Edokko or other area sushi restaurants is a small mouthful at Friends. For years I have correlated the size of sushi pieces with the quality of the restaurant, but I’m starting to re-evaluate. Sometimes bigger is better, sometimes it’s not and sometimes it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference. Let’s just say that the motion of the ocean is quite vigorous at Friends.

I’m starting to prefer the smaller pieces. I just find it more manageable to eat small nigiri in a single bite rather than awkwardly stuffing a giant hunk of fish into my mouth. Worse yet, attempts at eating nigiri in two bites are almost always disastrous. Once a piece of sushi falls from your chopsticks and is disassembled into it its component parts, it loses any magic it might have had.

The sushi bento box lunch special gets a lot of attention, and rightly so. For $8.95 you can get two nigiri, one maki roll, soup, a mini-egg roll, salad and crab rangoon (which they hilariously and accurately call a “cheese cracker”). Eating sushi at most places in the United States isn’t going to be a genuine experience of Japanese culinary culture and I suspect that Friends’ bento box lunches are a prime example of that. There are many options for the bento apart from sushi, but I’m not getting anything else if I go to a sushi restuarant.

So I’m not saying that this is the best food in the world; I’ll leave that to every other food blog in town. But I am saying that this is a well-sized, affordable lunch special that arrives quickly and tastes good.

If money isn’t an issue, by all means order sushi a la carte. I’ve done it and it’s really quite good and still won’t set you back a fortune.

Sushi

And the sushi isn’t sketchy. I’ve never had anything that seemed less than fresh or anything that was cut or prepared oddly. I even tolerated the likely presence of mayonnaise in the spicy crunchy salmon roll and enjoyed it immensely.

Friends is the most laid back sushi restaurant I have been to in Kansas City. Due to sushi’s elevated price point, most places tend to be slightly fancier affairs. The style of food lends itself well to casual but hip fine dining and semi-douchey night club-esque implementations. Friends is more like the Japanese Succotash with colorful walls (each painted a different bright color), utilitarian furniture and crude design accents like bamboo branches attached to the walls of the dining room.

What differentiates it from Succotash is the very good service. There are always plenty of servers available to tend to the dining room as well as a host/ess seating prospective diners. This place is really quite small but fortunately the primary dining room is separated from the entryway, sushi bar and waiting area. It does mean that servers often spend downtime wrapping silverware or doing other sidework at the sushi bar, particularly during lunch. It doesn’t bother me much but it’s a little awkward to have servers performing work other than serving when in full view of customers.

That’s all I have to say, not having been eaten there more than a few times. But I thought it was worth saying that Friends isn’t scary, sketchy or gross. Rather it’s quite good sushi for a good price. Maybe someday I’ll foray farther into the menu.

Friends Sushi & Bento Place on Urbanspoon

Sama Zama: 425 Westport Rd

 Posted by at 12:45 am
Jan 242012
 

South Overland Park’s One-Bite Japanese Grill has re-made itself and set up shop on Westport road as a classy but casual joint specializing in unusual small plates, noodles and okonomi yaki, among other things. The previous tenant, Matsu Sushi, had not aged well by the time it closed a couple years back. Happily, the space (half of what Matusu was) has been completely stripped down and redesigned in a tastful, minimal style. The east wall is exposed brick, the ceiling is painted tin and a small, orange counter sits near where the sushi bar used to be. Attractive dark wood tables complement the modern chairs. The dining room is almost exclusively 4-tops and 2-tops. One seating area by the front window could perhaps seat 8.

This clean, hip decor is accentuated by the soft but noticable strains of a Sirius dance music station. It feels like they are trying a little too hard in this aspect, but at least there were no lyrics to distract me from the business of stuffing my face.

I was initially confused by their choice to name the place “Sama Zama” because it sounds gimmicky. But a quick Google search informs me that the term means “varied” in Japanese, which I admit is a perfectly acceptable and appropriate description of the menu. It takes a while to figure out what to order. There are many choices in various configurations: lunch specials, entree portions, appetizers, soups, noodles, desserts, sides and nearly all of them were unfamiliar to me. So it takes time to read and process what is being offered. My dining companion and I each ordered a lunch special which includes two dumplings and a salad with a smaller portion of the main entree. A good selection of regular entrees are available as lunch specials: ramen (spicy or regular), udon, teriyaki, and the aforementioned okonomi yaki in a number of permutations.

The raw, marinated octopus appetizer I ordered exhibited wonderful flavor: savory soy punched up with wasabe. It was presented in a small bowl and garnished with strips of nori. I found myself wanting a different preparation once I took a few bites, not because it was bad but because I grew weary of the consistency of the straight-up octopus chunks without rice or more vegetable to provide a balance of texture. Raw octopus is pretty slimy and doesn’t look very appetizing to the Western eye so all you whities out there should excercise caution if you aren’t feeling a little adventurous.

Takowasa

While we ordered the spicy ramen and pork okonomi yaki as lunch specials, we were mistakenly brought full-size portions due to an error by our server who was otherwise quite good. I honestly didn’t realize what had happened until halfway through the meal. The price difference was minimal so I didn’t make a stink and somewhat enjoyed the huge portions we received. Seeing the specials being delivered to other tables, I noticed the portions were much more reasonable and appropriate for lunch.

The okonomi yaki is a crazy thing to behold: a pancake topped with meat and vegetables topped with a fried egg.

Okonomi yaki

You can choose to further adorn the dish with bonito flakes or little fried wonton strips. I recommend the former. I was somewhat disappointed that the flavors weren’t punched up very high for something so divinely wacky in concept. The pancake portion was exceedingly gummy, leading me to believe that it had been undercooked. Perhaps that’s the way it’s supposed to be? I think it is worth getting if you have never eaten it, but I’ll be ordering differently next time.

The broth of the spicy ramen, while exhibiting plenty of heat, was similarly lacking depth of flavor. Maybe I’m just a Guy Fieri-esque Phillistine who needs every dish laden with bacon and smoke and spice.

Spicy ramen

The noodles themselves were perfectly cooked and accompanied by delicious, tender slices of pork shoulder. This is the perfect dish for frenzied chopstick slurping.

Both entrees apparently came with little fried spring rolls which, while good, were pretty typical of most better Asian restaurants.

spring rolls

I’m not accustomed to posting about restaurants when they have been open less than a week but I decided to share my thoughts here nonetheless. Because I hadn’t planned on posting, I can’t recall the specific prices of the things I ordered. I think the ramen was $13 and the okonomi yaki about ten bucks. I want to say the lunch specials are about $10 as well. I hope Sama Zama does a good business and I suspect I’ll be back to eat again sooner rather than later. While my experience wasn’t perfect, the menu has a lot to offer and there really isn’t anything like it in town.

The Sama Zama website is still under development so the place to go for info right now is their Facebook page. They are open Sunday – Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Sama Zama on Urbanspoon<


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Edokko: 8615 Hauser Ct. Lenexa

 Posted by at 9:58 pm
Apr 252010
 

The restaurant critics gave a nice shout-out to Edokko on KCUR’s Walt Bodine show a few weeks ago. I was glad this place was on their radar because I had eaten there back in March and found it to serve among the best sushi in town.

Edokko Sushi

Edokko is situated in a small strip mall on Hauser Ct. just off 87th street in Lenexa. It sits next door to KC Grill & Kabob which itself offers a very fine Middle Eastern lunch buffet. Inside the entrance is a little lobby with some large bamboo and a delightful fish pond. The little speaker on top issues a barely audible greeting when you walk in or out.

Edokko

Edokko

Sushi is a great option for lunchers venturing out on their own. You can always count on the presence of a sushi bar where you can join other solo diners. The bar also offers the opportunity to watch the sushi chef practice his craft; some chefs (the gentleman at Jun’s comes to mind) are veritably chatty fellows who are more than happy to discuss the finer points of sushi-making.

Edokko is very tastefully decorated, anchored by an 18-seat granite sushi bar with stone accents.
Sushi bar

A series of elevated wooden booths run along two walls above the central dining area. The booths are sleek and modern with appealing earth-toned cushions.

Booths

Like most better sushi places, prices run a little higher than the average lunch excursion. The sushi special runs $10.95 and includes 6 pieces, a California roll and miso soup.

Sushi lunch

Miso soup

This is definitely a crowd-pleasing special as there are no “weird” choices, and a California roll is about as safe as you can get. But this was great sushi, absolutely creamy, fresh tasting and delightful. The nigiri were on the large side as well.

I went back recently and wanted to check out something else from their lunch menu (PDF). I opted for Yaki Udon, a dish of thick noodles mixed with chicken, snap peas, egg, lettuce, carrots, mushrooms and topped with sesame seeds and slivers of dried seaweed. Delicious. I strongly suspect that they make they own udon noodles but I haven’t eaten them a lot. I just have a hard time believing that a dried noodle could taste this tender and fresh. I asked the server but she had no idea how they were prepared, and indeed seemed clueless as to what the cooks did back there. That’s some serious division of labor.

Yaki Udon

Nonetheless, I appreciated the otherwise great service both at a booth and at the sushi bar during each visit. When I visited shortly after they opened, the owner chatted with me briefly, asking how I heard about Edokko, whether I liked the food and encouraging me to come back. She seemed like a nice lady and I felt good about patronizing the place. You will too, assuming you want to eat in Lenexa.

Oh, and I’m pretty sure they have karaoke.

Edokko Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

South OP in brief: Two Asian spots

 Posted by at 6:29 am
Feb 262009
 

Not long ago I had occasion to spend a few days in southern Overland Park, a locale that I am largely unfamiliar with in terms of lunching options. Fortunately I was able to eat at two very serviceable Asian restaurants, both of them small, informal, locally owned and pretty tasty.

One-Bite Japanese Grill is located on 135th in a little strip shopping center near Antioch. For those who reside in the area, it’s behind the Babies R’ Us. Aaaah, suburbia. This little spot turns out to be a very suavely decorated casual Japanese restaurant. As the name indicates, they feature a number of smaller plates, particularly Okonomi-Yaki–an omelet-type concoction cooked with the meat of your choice and topped with cabbage and mayonnaise. One-Bite’s “Grill Lunch” however, is essentially a box, similar to those you see at other Asian spots around town. I had the Tonkatsu, a simple preparation of lightly breaded pork, served with rice, salad and dumplings The real standout here were the dumplings–delicate, piping hot and delicious.

If it weren’t for the odd location I would visit more often. It looks perfect for lunch with essentially an updated classic diner layout: a row of booths along one side with a lunch counter overlooking the gleaming stainless steel kitchen on the other side. The rest of the place is colorful despite minimal artwork. I wish I had brought my camera.

There is a characteristically excellent Pitch review if you want more info.

OR

One Bite Japanese Grill on Urbanspoon

****

I also stopped by Fusion Chinese at 135th and Switzer one afternoon. This is a popular spot for Chinese take out in the area. Upon enetering I was surprised at how small the space was, but dine-in customers are not an afterthought as they are at many take-out oriented places. The place appears to be family owned and the servers are super friendly and attentive. Despite its size, it is a good place to bring kids.

As the name suggests, there is more going on here than at your typical Chinese takeout joint. They dedicate a fair amount of verbiage on the menu to their health conscious preparation techniques, including steaming, grilling, wok-frying and other methods that do not rely on much oil. They also offer brown rice with every entree which is a HUGE bonus for me, unless I am craving traditional sticky white rice. Regardless, both kinds are available. In general Fusion touts itself as a “healthy alternative to traditional Chinese food” and delivers on that promise with very good food.

Both Fusion and One-Bite are deserving of their own full fledged reviews, but I wasn’t planning on posting about them when I visited. I’d love to hear others’ experiences with these restaurants in preparation for a more substantive visit in the future.

Fusion Chinese on Urbanspoon

Kokoro Maki House: 340 W 75th St

 Posted by at 1:41 am
Dec 312008
 

I love counter service lunch spots. They are almost universally faster than full service restaurants, they tend to be more informal, and the food can still be excellent. But let me begin by stating what I think should be a self evident truth:

Ordering sushi from a counter, paying and then waiting for it to be delivered is just wrong.

No one waits on you, no one fills up the water glass, and you are not at the sushi bar chatting with anyone. You are just waiting. It is purely a capitalist exchange of goods for money.

Kokoro Maki House

Kokoro Maki House is way more lunch-oriented than any of the other sushi places I can think of. The menu is small and a lot of the sushi is served a la carte. But counter service prevails here, and it can be very difficult to choose what you want to order. Sushi involves lots of hard decision making and I always feel rushed at Kokoro, especially when there are people in line behind me. When getting sushi there I always feel like I miscalculated the amount I really need. Moreover, if you want something else after eating your food, you have to go up to the counter and order it, pay, then wait for it. I call bullshit on that. Sushi is a splurge food for me. I want to be waited on, and that’s that.

So recently I stopped back into Kokoro and saw something I had not noticed before: Korean dishes on the menu. Much like Cho-Ga Kokoro offers lunch boxes with a Korean entree and various accouterments including rice, dumplings, 2 pieces of maki, and a salad.

Kokoro Maki House

I know, I know these boxes are not authentic Korean, but damn it was delicious! The bulgogi was perfectly cooked, piping hot and the dumplings were little deep fried nuggets of delight. My partner’s Bi Bim Bop and accompanying kim chee looked damn good too. The pickled daikon was my favorite of the three. She claimed it was one of the best dishes of Bi Bim Bop she has ever tasted.

Kokoro Maki House

What’s more, they seem to care about presentation at Kokoro. Details like the little foil square beneath the dumplings, black sesame seeds atop the rice, and nori strips on the Bi Bim Bop indicate that these are folks who care about what they serve.

I have had the sushi here as well, and found it very good and affordable. But it has been at least a year since I tried it, so I can’t really say much more about it with any confidence.

The food does take a while to come out, even when they are not busy. This is perhaps the biggest drawback. What service they do have is fine, although the teenager at the counter was not particularly helpful and seemed more interested in texting than taking care of us. But generally I give teenagers a pass; their lives are annoying enough without some half-assed food blogger complaining about how they do their jobs.

These are great little affordable Korean lunch specials right in the heart of Waldo. For those who need the Korean fix without venturing into Johnson County, look no further than Kokoro.

Read more:

Kokoro Maki House on Urbanspoon

Yelp

Matsu: 427 Westport Rd. – CLOSED

 Posted by at 6:30 pm
Dec 102008
 

A few days ago, The Library notified me that there was a book on hold for me. I had come across a review for Asian Dining Rules by Steven Shaw a while back but had frankly forgotten about putting a hold on it. In a nutshell, Shaw explains how to order and eat various Asian cuisines at restaurants. Although not perfect, I love the way the author rebukes American culture for the stereotypes and misinformation about Asian foods.

For instance, he says it is not just silly but insulting that doctors recommend pregnant women avoid sushi. He also says there is no proof whatsoever that MSG has significant adverse effects. He chastises the media for periodic horror stories about the unhealthiness of Chinese food. Aahh, I love me some controversy!

But this ain’t a book review blog. So what’s my point? Well, after reading the Japanese chapter this weekend, I was hungry for some sushi!

I’ve eaten at Matsu several times before, as well as other places like Domo, Friends, Nara, Juns and whatever that place is in Town Center. I think they are all pretty good, I just happened to choose Matsu because it was the closest place at the time.

After reading Asian Dining Rules, I was excited to partake, but still didn’t follow Shaw’s recommendations to the letter. But I will select, condense, misremember and pass them along to you here:

1. Always eat at the sushi bar. You’ll get better stuff if the chef is right in front of you. Pieces of fish have better and worse parts so guess who’s gonna get the ass end of the tuna? Right, the dudes way across the dining room drinking beer. Plus, Shaw contends that sushi is best from chef’s hand to your mouth with as little time as possible in between.

2. Order the combo platters/chef specials. Allowing the chef to decide is always the best way. This will save you some serious dough and you’ll also get the best, freshest fish.

3. Talk to the sushi chef. This is a recurring theme in the book. If you are non-Asian it really helps to get to know the owners and employees. No one knows the good stuff better than the guy touching it all day.

4. Go during off hours. This will give you time to ask questions of staff and the food will be better because they are not rushed.

These are not exclusive to Japanese/Sushi establishments, though he does offer another whole procedure for getting the very best meal at the sushi bar, promising that it would be exorbitantly expensive.

When I walked in and was seated, I passed the sushi bar only to notice a piece of sushi and a half sliced maki roll on the cutting board: no sushi chef in sight. Did he go take a leak? Did he pause for a cigarette? Having recently read that sushi should be eaten as quickly as possible, I started to get a bad feeling. Fortunately the chef returned as we sat down at our table. For a minute there I was worried that our server doubled as sushi chef.

On my meager salary, I went for the Chef’s lunch special, a good deal but still a chunk of change at $14.50. For those insane people among you who do not like sushi (and vegetarians I suppose) there are a few interesting options in the $9-10 range. The donburi in particular looked very good, and Matsu had a few different kinds.

The miso soup is great. It’s much darker and richer than that at other Japanese restaurants. They have the usual assortment of intriguing starters such as daikon pickles, edamame, seaweed salad and even tempura alligator. The salad had a nice tangy dressing, but was virtually drenched in the stuff. The flavor was strong enough that they should have used half as much.

Unfortunately the sushi looked a little limp and sad when it arrived. It tasted good and was well cut but I suspected it was not the freshest available. The pieces were also on the small side. My piece of tuna had what looked like a little soy sauce fingerprint on it. That what I get for not sitting at the sushi bar, see?

The decor here is kinda funny, sort of like what a Japanese restaurant looked like 20 years ago. Various parts of the interior are meant to resemble pagodas. . There is a wooden crisscross frame across the entire ceiling, just below a bunch of exposed duct work and some painted tin. Some tables had funny tray stands carved out of tree trunks decorated with monkeys or zebras.

Our server was very friendly and did a nice job. He was way too apologetic about interrupting us to pour tea or clear dishes. Dude, just don’t say anything and pour the damn tea. A large white man started wandering around about halfway through our meal. He was puttering in the kitchen, the dishwashing area, and periodically perched himself at the sushi bar. I got the feeling he was the owner, since was wasn’t really doing anything productive.

After this visit, I find that I prefer most other sushi restaurants in the metro, although the Westport location is convenient. I know sushi has come up in previous posts, so where do you all like to go for really good sushi? Or quick, affordable sushi?

For more info on Matsu check out this a very good Yelp review.

Read more:

Matsu Japanese on Urbanspoon

Yelp