A curious thing happened in Madison this past January. The restaurant Sushi Hut (505 State St.) closed, only to be replaced almost immediately by a new sushi restaurant called Osaka House. Could the new group of owners have simply opened up the same basic restaurant under a new name?
“First off, I’m really unsure as to whether this is actually a new business, or if the people who named their restaurant ‘Sushi Hut’ are trying to escape the low-rent connotations (and history of bad publicity),” yelped one skeptic on yelp.com.
An Urbanspooner corroborated, “same owners reinventing themselves perhaps”?
In reality, it seems as though the restaurant that gave me my first sushi experience does, indeed, have new owners. But new owners do not necessarily translate to good quality, as I soon found out.
Before my assessment of Osaka House’s food, here’s a rundown of some of the terms to be familiar with on your average sushi menu.
Nori: Seaweed pressed into paper-thin sheets.
Roll: Basic sushi – Nori seaweed wrapped around a layer of rice and a core of raw tuna, salmon, avocado, crab or other fillings.
Sashimi: Plain slices of raw fish.
Tempura: Battered and deep fried seafood or vegetables.
Udon: Thick, wide wheat noodles.
Soba: Buckwheat noodles.
Wasabi: Very hot, green Japanese horseradish ground into a paste and used as sushi flavoring
The atmosphere on the first floor of Osaka House is not the most welcoming environment – more that of an unpretentious, run-down lunch counter. Fluorescent lighting reigns over square tables, and church basement chairs dot the meager floor space. Upstairs, however, the ambiance considerably improves with softer lighting, nice hardwood tables, a bar and a small stage at the back with pillows (in case you fancy eating on the floor). First word of advice: Request to sit in the bar.
The soy sauce is served in tiny teapots, which I thought was a cute touch. The sushi itself came nicely laid out on a square dish. Everyone got individual rectangle dishes and a tiny circular dish for soy sauce.
But before I continue, let me be clear: I don’t claim any expertise or experience with regards to how sushi should taste. What follows is only my personal observations as a first-time sushi eater.
For first time sushi-eaters, an order of sashimi gets at the crux of most people’s chief point of contention with sushi: raw fish. It really is just six slices of raw fish served on a plate with some shaved jicama (or other crunchy root vegetable), pickled ginger (for cleansing the pallette) and a dollop of wasabi.
At Osaka House, the sashimi itself was mostly tasteless, with an undercurrent of fishy flavor. The attraction for me was the texture; it was pillowy and soft, like eating a pad of melty butter. Once dipped in soy sauce and combined with a few crumbles of wasabi, the sashimi was downright enjoyable.
The rolls, unfortunately, were not as texturally satisfying as the sashimi. We tried a Maki Combo, which is a California roll, a tuna roll and a salmon roll. The order started with miso soup and a salad. The soup was interesting; it’s flavor – which I’ve been told is another source of pure umami – was empty yet full and warm at the same time, and the tiny chunks of tofu in it weren’t entirely unpleasant. The salad was almost nothing to speak of – bright peach-colored tangy dressing drizzled over a few iceberg leaves.
The seaweed on the outside of the rolls was stringy and tough, while the insides were sticky and, again, nearly tasteless. We made up for it by dipping them in exorbitant amounts of soy sauce and crumbling yet more wasabi over them. Second piece of advice: Don’t go crazy with the wasabi unless you want a flamethrower up your nose.
Finally, we tried ordering salmon roe, but our server thought we had said “salmon roll,” and we ended up with double the salmon rolls and way more food than we could eat. Good thing we had a lot of friends there! Third and fourth pieces of advice: Enunciate your words and bring a group so you can try a wide variety of dishes.
In the end, as mediocre as my first sushi experience was, it’s a good idea to keep in mind Anthony Bourdain’s assessment of sushi (as told to Playboy Magazine):
” The difference between high-end sushi – really good sushi – and just good sushi is interplanetary.”
In other words, if you have a bad sushi experience like I did, don’t give up, just shoot for a little more quality. There are plenty of other sushi restaurants in Madison – Sushi Muramoto, Sushi Box, Wasabi, Edo, Takara and Red Sushi – just waiting for you to dig your chopsticks in.
Samantha Stepp is a junior majoring in journalism. Email suggestions, recipes or comments to [email protected]