- Walter Novak
- The Dragon Roll is edible art.
Roving gourmets would do well to consider the answer before heading out to Aoeshi, Chong and Yong Kim's tiny Japanese restaurant and sushi bar in North Olmsted. The sushi is undoubtedly some of the best in the region -- vibrantly fresh, generously apportioned, and artfully prepared. On the other hand, the delay between placing an order and finally tucking into Chef Chong's delicious morsels prompted one waggish companion to wonder whether aoeshi wasn't Japanese for "endless wait." (Actually, it means "blue stone.")
Still, we can understand how followers of the finer things in life might be willing to make the trade-off, giving up the bulk of their evening in exchange for rosy slabs of thickly sliced tuna, draped like velvet across pads of firm, slightly chewy rice, in the flawlessly prepared maguro sushi -- or for the extraordinary sensation of deep-fried eel, its satisfying crunch melting into the buttery counterpoint of avocado, cream cheese, and yellowtail, in a fat Volcano Roll.
While Chef Chong's repertoire includes both nigiri and maki sushi, it's his 40-item collection of "inside-out" uramake rolls that rocks the house. They range from generously stuffed standards like Philly Rolls (smoked salmon and cream cheese), Spicy Tuna Rolls, and Spider Rolls (featuring battered and fried softshell crab) to more inspired creations such as the Rainbow Roll (a fully equipped California Roll, additionally draped with tuna, salmon, whitefish, and shrimp) and the Bulgogi Roll, a Korean-inspired roll-up of marinated, broiled beef and spinach. For timid diners, or vegetarians, there's an unusually large number of meat-free possibilities, too, such as the Kampyo Roll (dried squash), the AAC Roll (asparagus, avocado, and cucumber), the Pickled Radish Roll, and the Ume Shiso Roll (with pickled plum). And finally, among the nigiri selections, don't overlook the most excellent tamago, a broad band of custardy egg "omelet," moist, cloud-light, and vaguely sweet, mounted on an oversized pad of fragrant rice.
A native of South Korea (where sushi is almost as popular as in Japan), Chef Chong came to the States in 1983, honing his skills in a series of sushi spots from Miami to Michigan, until finally arriving at Century, in the Cleveland Ritz-Carlton, in 2000. As it turns out, the Century gig wasn't just a good career move; it's also where he met his future wife, Yong. Happily for area sushi-heads, the couple decided to strike out on their own last May, opening the serene Aoeshi in a tiny strip plaza set well back from Lorain Road.
The restaurant's tranquil interior, filled with about 15 white-paper-topped tables, each set with chopsticks, paper napkins, and a single red-silk tulip, makes a fine antidote to the aggravating waits. After all, it's hard to cop an attitude when seated in a romantically lit room, done up in restful shades of celadon and sand, while Vivaldi and Beethoven play softly in the background. And it's not that the staffers aren't friendly; it's just that none of them seems to have a firm grasp on the basics of professional service.
It can take just a little too long, for instance -- especially in light of the restaurant's small size -- to be greeted and seated for dinner. Ditto on having a server arrive to take an order. Then, if the dining room is busy, the sushi portion of the order can take more than half an hour to arrive; meanwhile, other dishes (soup, salads, or appetizers, say) come out of the kitchen in no particular order -- sometimes before, sometimes after, and sometimes concurrent with the main event.
When we visited earlier this month, staffers were quick to tell us that Aoeshi didn't yet have its liquor license; unfortunately, in the course of two visits, they never mentioned that BYOB was permitted. (In fact, we might never have known about it, if on our second visit we hadn't seen two guests jump up from their seats, throw on their coats, and dash out the door, only to return a few minutes later with satisfied smirks and a bottle of wine.) So instead, we settled for tea, with mixed results: One night, refills appeared only sporadically, and on the next, the refills, while frequent, were colder than the dregs remaining in the cup. (Those with a yen for Sapporo or sake can take heart, though: Aoeshi has since obtained all required permits.)
Of course, all these small annoyances must be weighed against the chance to feast on Chef Chong's unusually delicious sushi. His arrangements are always colorful and tidy, and sometimes (as in the case of his serpentine Dragon Roll) downright whimsical, garnished with everything from wheels of fresh lemon, sliced sheer as silk stockings, to mounds of gem-colored roe, zigzags of fiery wasabi cream, and bright green leaves.
Although sushi and sashimi are Aoeshi's main attraction, the menu does include a number of traditional Japanese appetizers and entrées, including gyoza (fried, meat-filled dumplings), edamame (tender, in-the-pod soybeans), and several types of tempura, donburi (rice bowls), and noodle dishes. There's also a version of hwe dup bap, Korea's great contribution to the world of sushi, composed of assorted raw fish and vegetables tossed over rice in a large bowl, and more bulgogi, now served either on its own or scattered over rice in the style of donburi.
Still, after working our way through a double handful of these dishes, prepared under the guidance of Yong Kim, it seems clear that Aoeshi's gustatory thrills don't lie in this direction. Miso soup? Uninteresting and bland. The ubiquitous iceberg-lettuce salad? Made even less compelling by a flat-footed version of the traditionally snappy ginger dressing. Two skewers of yakitori -- bits of soy-glazed chicken alternating with sliced carrot, onion, and red and green pepper -- had a fine sweet-smoky flavor; unfortunately, the chicken was about 30 degrees past tender. The same was true of the chewy pork in a plate of yaki soba, a modest portion of pan-fried noodles tossed with perfectly tender-crisp veggies, lots of sesame seeds, and that overcooked meat.
Tonkatsu -- breaded, fried, and sliced pork cutlet, served with rice and the traditional shredded cabbage -- was better, although we were disappointed to find that katsu donburi (the same type of cutlet, now served in a bowl with rice, but without the cabbage) lacked the usual topping of softly scrambled egg. But, surprisingly, the best-executed dish was tempura -- something that comes out of many Japanese-restaurant kitchens as an oil-logged disappointment. Here, though, a scallop version, with silver-dollar-sized slices of the creamy shellfish dipped in a delicate batter, fried up light, crisp, and impressively greaseless, and served with an assortment of equally well-done tempura vegetables, including broccoli florets, carrot, and white and sweet potato slices, was a knockout. If only the understated dipping sauce had had some zip, we thought, this dish would have been beyond reproach.
Meantime, hard at work behind his tiny sushi bar, with a wall-sized mural of a koi pond as a backdrop, Chef Chong is a one-man operation, and his work is as deliberate, painstaking, and labor-intensive as any surgeon's. It would be good if he could find himself an apprentice (he says he's looking) or convenient if he could take some shortcuts. Yet, if you are lucky enough to find one of his fantastic Dragon Rolls set before you -- a massive inside-out California Roll, draped in alternating stripes of creamy brown eel, sleek avocado, and dusky nori, bejeweled with lustrous clusters of orange smelt roe and red and yellow tobiko, coaxed into a reptilian "S" curve, and finished with gossamer fans of precisely sliced apple -- it would seem downright criminal to argue that it wasn't worth the wait.