Escolar and Uni at Aka Sushi
Every time I mention enjoying a particular sushi restaurant, a commenter or two will chime in to tell me that I'm a blithering idiot for not enjoying Aka Sushi more. (Sometimes that's an exaggeration, but not usually.) This also used to happen with Sushi King until I went over there one day, enjoyed my meal and wrote about it.
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt Sea snail up front, uni in the back.
I finally made it over to Aka Sushi (2390 West Alabama, 713-807-7875), the sister restaurant to the original Aka on Eldridge. First of all, the service was quite enjoyable. As it turns out, my waiter, Tony, seems to be a bit of a favorite on sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon. I didn't know this going in; I just knew that I liked him from the get-go. He reminded me of Agador Spartacus from The Birdcage (which I sincerely hope isn't viewed as an insult; I love me some Hank Azaria).
"Finish all your sake, honey!" he would trill gleefully as he came by the table to check on me throughout the evening. I enjoyed Tony, the food, the sake and the music at Aka so much, I could have stayed cozy in my little booth -- head mostly in my book and stuffing myself silly with fish -- all night long.
"Do you have any questions about the menu?" he asked after I had gotten my sake.
I make chopstick stands with the wrappers when I'm fidgety. What?
"Just one: Do you still have uni tonight?" I pointed to the specials board at the entrance.
"Oh yes!" His eyes lit up. "Just flown in today!" I doubted the veracity of that claim, considering I was dining on New Year's Day, but that wasn't going to stop me ordering some. I ordered the sea snail, too, for good measure; it was also on special and I couldn't recall ever having any sea snail.
The uni came as a two-piece cut roll that was made rather clumsily, but I suppose that's what you get for $10. It's fascinating that the Japanese demand for sea urchin roe -- that's the soft, orange part that's eaten as uni -- turned it into a luxury item over there, which in turn made it a luxury item in the United States over the past decade. The U.S. originally viewed sea urchins as pests, until Japan started purchasing them from Maine fishermen 20 years ago.
How best to describe the taste of uni? It's like standing on the edge of a pier and tasting the ocean spray on some far-flung, isolated tip of New England...if the ocean was also made of softened butter. It's easy to see why it's prized for its flavor and texture, but also becomes a little silly when you think about all the annoying sea urchins fishermen used to
scrape from their boats in fits of irritation smash to bits with hammers. (Note: I somehow confused barnacles with sea urchins while writing; how, I have no idea.)
The sea snail (known over here as whelk) also had a lovely texture, albeit of a different kind. It was enjoyably cartilaginous and had a fun snap to it that reminded me of octopus. It also tasted faintly briny, in the same way that you can hold a sea snail's shell to your ear and hear the vague roar of the ocean inside it.
After finishing my snail and roe, I turned my attention to the menu. The thing is a bit schizophrenic, featuring nearly every kind of Japanese food -- sushi to ramen to pork katsu-don -- and nearly every kind of preparation, from modern to traditional, under the sun. It's as if the restaurant looked at the popular items at other restaurants -- some hasame shiso age here, some deconstructed hamachi dishes there -- and threw them all into the mix. As a result, the happy hour menu is vast. You can't complain about a lack of options here.