Monday, December 13, 2010

Akari Express, the C student of NCSU's sushi scene

Rice, seaweed...goldfish? Why not?
My entry into sushi culture was far from ceremonious. If anything, it bordered on disastrous instead.  In the spring of 1987, my uncle’s frequent flying had earned him a free trip to Hawaii, which he gave to my father.  Never one to deny his sons the chance to experience America (which just conveniently put him on the beaches as well), he bought tickets for my younger brother and I, and we soon found ourselves in the islands.  I’m not a big fan of sun, surf, and sand.  Though I had a physique that could make many a marine mammal jealous, I was never big on baking myself on a large towel in between rounds of saltwater marinatings.  So instead, I wandered around the various shopping districts, where I was amazed at the unique fusion of American and Japanese cultures.  In particular, I was obsessed with the ubiquitous presence of sushi in the area.  Up to that point in my life, my sole experience with sushi was the scene in The Breakfast Club where a defiant Molly Ringwald defends her lunch choice to Judd Nelson: “You won’t accept a guy’s tongue in your mouth, and you’re gonna eat that?“  It was more of a food daredevil experiment, really.  I wanted to see if I could eat it and get a rise from my father and brother, who registered their disgust as soon as they saw their first plastic sushi model at the first Japanese food stand we passed.  I’ve never been one to give up a chance to eat something for attention.  One of my great thanks in life is that during my undergraduate years, none of my friends had goldfish around when we drank.  Between the intoxication and my John Blutarskyesque appetite, yeah, I’d have likely gone there…

Small, green, and candy like...what could go wrong?
Days of denials passed, as my father and brother refused to indulge my requests to stop at a restaurant wherein I might get my first fix.  Then finally, we stopped in a buffet for dinner, and there on the cold bar was a plate of sushi.  After I confessed my virginity, the waitress was happy to help me.  She explained each piece as she put it on the plate, and then she put a lump of salmon-colored slices and a small green pellet on the plate.  I returned to the table, my father and sibling both staring with a combination of curiosity and revulsion.  Remembering Ringwald’s character, I poured soy sauce over each piece, grabbed my chopsticks, and adeptly put the first piece between them.  With each piece, I announced the contents and ate it, to my collected family’s disgust.  Then finished, I began to work on the salmon colored slices.  Spicy and sweet—must have been an edible, post sushi digestif, I rationed.  So then, I put the green ball in my chopsticks (another post-sushi digestif, I thought) and drew it to my mouth.

If my positive reviews in the preceding minutes had at all broken down my father and brother’s reluctance to sushi, the next thirty seconds would forever scar and scare them away from it.  I mashed the green ball between my tongue and the roof of my mouth and wrinkled my face as I proceeded to gasp and reach for any fluid in a glass—my water, my soda, my brother’s water and soda, my father’s water and soda—I didn’t care.  In those moments, my only concern was in addressing the oral Chernobyl I was experiencing.  Wasabi, the waitress called it when she came by moments later, with a convenient pitcher of water.  To this day, I believe that the entire crew of the restaurant was watching behind a curtain somewhere, snickering as money changed hands in a bet as to whether or not I’d eat it.  Swing over to Waiter Rant.  Restaurateurs, cooks, and waitstaff can be dicks like that, especially with tourists.

But I was always the resilient fat kid, never one to retreat in the face of failure.  When I fell off my bike, I got back on it and rode again.  When a middle school guidance counselor told me I was too dumb for college, I fought my way through high school, an undergraduate degree, a masters degree, and a doctoral program (and you thought you were obsessive?) just to prove myself in my mind.  While dating, I went through enough evil exes to make a bisexual  Scott Pilgrim sequel before I found the right partner.  Never quit, never retreat.  So in the years that followed my wasabi-fueled indoctrination into sushi culture, I continued to sample it where and when I could.

Being just a bit gluttonous, I’ve never been much of a food snob.  My rule (usually) is that if something won’t kill me, I’ll at least try it.  Some of my college kitchen creations stand testament to that.  When you’ve earned the title “Iron Chef Ramen,” it becomes a badge of honor to the degree of things you’ll create to consume.  However, having had some truly bad sushi in my past, I do harbor a few prejudices here and there when it comes time to break out the chopsticks.   The biggest and most egregious offenders seem to be the restaurants that offer sushi as an add-on to another menu—like the legions of C-grade Chinese buffets that began putting sloppily-slapped sushi on cold lines across the country in the last 90s and early 00’s.  Either the rice was poorly prepared, or the fish itself bordered on rancid.

I became aware of Akari Express while I was playing on the Urbanspoon app one afternoon.  It was near one of my part time jobs, and fit my one-star criteria, so I stopped in for a late lunch (or early dinner…whichever category 3:30pm falls in to) one day in between gigs.  Akari Express seems to have been born Miyako Express and underwent a small identity crisis at some point in the recent past, thus the new name.  It’s in the upper level of a strip mall across the street from NCSU—a bit hard to find the first time there.  The restaurant itself is small and simply decorated, with just a few banners and other knick knacks to provide a setting.  But let’s be honest—with one-star Japanese, most people aren’t there for lacquered fixtures and elaborate décor.   

The menu is simple—barely large enough to cover the front of a standard piece of paper, a small assortment of: sushi, yaki soba, tempura, udon, teppanyaki, and a few side items.  Most of the seating consists of tables, though the presence of barstools in front of the sushi station suggests that patrons could sit there for a more traditional experience.

I was a bit taken back by the pricing on the sushi. It seemed a bit higher than average, probably padded to accommodate for the BOGO specials throughout the week, allowing for the illusion of getting a deal.  Moreover, it seemed that everything on the menu was ala carte.  Salad?  Separate.  Soup?  Separate?  There was a single sushi combo special (a Califormia roll and a Geisha roll), but there was nothing beyond that for thrifty customers, much less a lunch crowd.  My first impression with the staff wasn’t stellar either.  The woman who took my order was a bit brusque when I asked some questions.  She seemed impatient and standoffish, as if I was taking her away from the television behind me.  Not one to want to anger the person who was likely making at least part of my meal, I quickly placed my order, and looked around the restaurant while I waited for my food to arrive, which took about ten minutes.

Both the miso soup and salad arrived in Styrofoam containers.  The soup was hot and had a nice flavor, unmarred by the rancid, oily taste that sometimes hinders miso.  The salad, however, was disappointing.  The greens were fresh, but the dressing had no real flavor to it—no sweetness, no ginger tartness, nothing.  It was a faintly-flavored pulp that lubricated the otherwise dry greens.  Given that I was paying ala carte pricing, I expected something better—or at least enough taste to warrant not bundling it in with a meal and charging $1.99 as a side.  Even grocery store ginger dressing has more flavor than Akari’s ginger dressing.

The sushi was solid, in terms of taste.  The rice grains had a faint hint of vinegar and stuck together well—neither falling apart on the chopstick nor feeling like a rice brick on the mouth.  Trying to get some variety in the meal, I opted for the sole sushi special—the California roll and Geisha roll.  The California roll was as generic as every California roll I’d had in the twenty-three years before.  The only way to mess this roll up is with aged ingredients.  Fortunately, the crab stick was fresh, and the avocado had a nice green color to it.  Safe, generic sushi, that California roll, ordinary in every way. But at least it was a good benchmark of the freshness of the food.  The Philly roll (this one being the salmon-crème cheese variety, and not its crabstick cousin) was also plain and ordinary.  For $6.50, I expect more—either a larger roll (instead of the smaller, inside-out roll) with a bit more filling or a little something extra.  Even sesame seeds would have justified the pricing more.

The Geisha roll was the unique roll I chose for the meal.  Each restaurant has a few signature rolls, and I try to find something to break out of the spread of nigiri and rolls common to every place.  Akari Express has two, the NC State Roll and the Geisha.  The Geisha roll combines tuna, masago (flying fish roe—that’s eggs to the initianated), scallion, sesame seed, in a fried roll, topped with an eel sauce, spicy sauce, and butter sauce.  In spite of its almost overwhelming ingredient list, the roll delivered, both with a nice blend of textures and flavors.  The deep frying left the roll crisp on the breading but still soft inside. The heat from the spicy sauce stayed with me for several minutes after.

The sushi is good, in that it’s mostly a smattering of safe offerings that will appeal to the most mainstream of diners.  Unfortunately, it’s also expensive for the caliber of food served up.  Ordinary rolls that would cost $4 elsewhere run up to $6.50 at Akari Express, and taste exactly the same as the $4 roll.  The ala carte menu makes a one star meal quickly inflate to two star territory. They seem to be taking advantage of their collegiate proximity and pricing for car-locked students.  The homogeneity of the menu was broken up by two unique sushi rolls, which seem to be the only the only thing that makes Akari Express stand out from its competitors.  The signature roll I had was a nice stand out, but can’t justify the pricy nature of the food itself.  Perhaps if Akari rebrands itself again to try and begin with a fresh public image, they’ll either think about lowering their prices for the caliber of their menu or raising the menu’s quality to reflect the pricing. 

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