Category Archives: Japanese

Ba Sho

Ba Sho japanese restaurant

Cuisine: Japanese

2800 Festival Lane (near corner of 161 & Sawmill)

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As is often the case in quality Asian restaurants in Columbus, Ba Sho shows different sides of itself to different people. Should you not be conspicuously Japanese, it tends to provide the menus that show you the items they assume you’ll prefer. Though this may be frustrating, it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s intended as a courtesy.

And, should you be Japanese, an extensive a la carte (small plate) menu also shows up. One that, until recently, was only printed in Japanese, and even now may be a bit difficult for gaijin to get their hands on.

Don’t relent. At minimum, you’ll want the option of ordering from this menu (front, and back). It’s a big part of what makes Ba Sho distinctly different from every other sushi joint in town.

For a great example of this, see their salt-grilled (shio-yaki) items. Both the salt grilled tuna collar and yellowtail collar exhibited a wonderfully crispy char on the outside that concealed the almost creamily tender flesh within. The similarly prepared and distinctly non-rubbery ika-geso (below) has become my new favorite squid dish in town.

salt grilled squid ika

Ankimo (monkfish liver with daikon, ponzu, and green onions) is considered one of the great delicacies of Japan. Since Ba Sho is only the second restaurant we’ve encountered in Columbus to carry it, we had to try it.

ankimo monkfish liver

We’re glad we did. With pleasantly mild overtones of both liver and fish, it was both firm and velvety, and was well accompanied by the tart tang of the citrusy ponzu.

The above represents the highlights of our orders from the a la carte menu, though much remains to be explored. Andrew Zimmern-style curiosity seekers may find additional interest in the natto, fermented squid, and grilled blowfish (fugu) skin.

On a visit with a Japanese-speaking friend, we were told of an off-the-menu dish well worth noting – kani zosui (crab & rice soup with egg, mushrooms, scallions, seaweed, shown below). Though it’s traditionally consumed when ill, we’d gladly partake of its deeply savory comfort-foody qualities on most any occasion.

Ba Sho kani zosui

Ba Sho has an abbreviated lunch menu featuring bento box specials, noodle dishes and katsu (fried panko crusted meat) options. Among those we’ve tried, all were perfectly fine and largely consistent with what you’d find at most Japanese restaurants in town.

Japanese restaurants in the US tend to lean towards being bright and somewhat upscale, but Ba Sho takes a more traditional route. The relatively dark, highly divided, and clean but somewhat cluttered space makes for one of the most genuinely Japanese restaurant environments we’ve seen outside of Japan. The space, plus liberal use of the a la carte menu, amounts to a short, delicious trip to the East.

Freshstreet Yakitori

Cuisine: Japanese

482 S. Front St.
Columbus, OH 43215

Open  Thursday through Saturday, 6:30pm – Midnight

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There exists, in the Brewery District, a bar with no signage. The owners seem to do little in the way of self-promotion, and the lights are dimmed to the point that you might not even think they’re open. They occupy the old Gibby’s building on Front St., and call themselves ‘Double Happiness’.

Once inside, you’ll not mistake them for Gibby’s, or for that matter, any other Brewery District watering hole past or present. Huge red lamps hang from the ceiling, and a strong East Asian vibe permeates. DJs spin on some nights, live music occurs on others. Asian beers and sake-based drinks are the bar’s specialties. The place aims for and hits ‘cool’ dead center.

The only reason we know of this place is because we know Kenny Kim and Misako Ohba, owners of Fresh Street. They have struck a deal with Double Happiness, and now serve kushiyaki (and more) out of the previously dormant kitchen within. They call this new endeavor ‘Freshstreet Yakitori’.

Yakitori, literally translated from Japanese, means charcoal-grilled chicken on skewers. In the US, it’s often (mis)used to refer to anything Japanese-inspired that is charcoal-grilled on skewers, which is a range of offering that should technically fall under the umbrella term of ‘kushiyaki‘.

I mention this only to underscore one point – Freshstreet is serving far more than chicken. In addition to chicken thighs, skin, wings, and meatballs, they’re also serving pork belly, pork cheek, beef short ribs, bacon-wrapped mushrooms, beef heart & kidney, and on and on. As of our last stop in, they had perhaps 13 unique skewer options, with more to come.

I fear I may have objectivity problems – I’m thoroughly enamored with Kenny & Misako, and I’m a sucker for charcoal-grilled meats. When I walked in, it went something like this:

So it made for a good reality check when I happened to talk to a local restauranteur who is well versed in Japanese street foods, and had just been to Double Happiness. They said that Freshstreet’s kushiyaki was about as good as any they’d had anywhere.

Freshstreet also offers ramen and rice balls, and both are seriously good. The ramen’s chicken broth sets the standard in town, and the subtle spicing and crusty grilled exterior of the rice balls make for an edifying experience.

Expect the menu to change somewhat due to availability of ingredients, time of year, and the whims of the kitchen. This has long been a big part of the charm of Fresh Street, and our general advice would be to roll with it – you might not necessarily get the thing you’ve been craving from last time, but you’ll probably discover something new that you’ll end up craving next time.

Please note that Freshstreet provides vegetarian and vegan options. Skewers generally run between $2.50 and $4.00 each, and cups of ramen run $4.00 apiece.

Tensuke Express

Cuisine: Japanese

1167 Old Henderson Rd.
Open: Mon-Fri – 11am-2:30pm, Sat – 11am-7:30pm, Sun – 12pm-7:30pm

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Tensuke Express is a cheap and cheerful lunch stop, and a great little example of Japanese fast food done well. The space, which can be entered either from the outside (seen above) or through the adjacent Tensuke Market, is done up in a vaguely aquatic theme, and features a circular bar seating area with a large, cylindrical fish tank in the middle. Feel free to take a seat there and observe the drama of a 4-foot long leopard-patterned eel slithering out tight laps while smaller fish dart out of its way.

But only after putting in your order, at which point you’ll pay and be given one of those light-up buzzer bricks to signal when you’ll need to return to pick up your meal. Children (myself among them) seem to get a kick out of the obscenely evocative racket the buzzers make against the Corian tabletops.

Meals are a bargain at $5 – $7.50, and the combinations in particular are a steal, all at less than $7.00. Sides run from $.50 – $4.00, with most under $3.00. Beverages are all under $1.00, with Japanese tea at only $.50.

So, like I said, cheap – as in, within a buck or so of your average fast food drive-thru order. But so much better. For example, take a look at this ‘udon + BBQ eel bowl’ combo ($6.75):

It’s a solid rendition of your standard udon bowl – thick, white flour noodles, light, savory broth, seaweed, scallions, a slice of fish cake, and bits of tempura – served with a generous side of BBQ eel. Once you get past the foreign-ness of some of the ingredients, it’s easy to think of this as pure comfort food. The eel, served atop rice, seemed surprisingly generous – it was probably the equivalent of 6 pieces of eel nigiri sushi, and every bit as satisfying.

Yaki udon ($5.75) was similarly enjoyed. Pan fried noodles, bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots, onions and scallions in what Tensuke calls a ‘special sauce’ that was slightly sweet with sesame oil notes. Delicious!

The steamed gyoza ($2.95)  – meaty steamed dumplings with a side of salty soy/sesame oil sauce – were also appreciated and disappeared quickly.

The takoyaki (spherical pancake dumplings with octopus in the middle, $2.95) were good, but we can’t help but feel spoiled by the exceptional quality of Fresh Street’s version. They’re a fine side if you’re already at Tensuke, but if you’re specifically looking for them, I’d recommend that you check here first.

Beyond the dishes shown here, Tensuke also carries a variety of cold noodle dishes, rice curries, ramen bowls, tempura bowls, and Japanese chicken and pork plates. If our experiences (and discussions with others) are any indication, any of these will likely be more than satisfying and an make for an exceptional bargain.

Note: Tensuke Market also carries pre-made sushi, and has a sushi order counter in the small room between the restaurant and the main market area.

Fresh Street

Cuisine: Japanese

1030 N. High St. (in the parking lot just south of Bodega)
Open: weekdays, 11:30am – 5:30pm (closed Tues), weekends, 12:00pm – 6:00pm
Facebook Page

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Imagine you opened a Japanese crepe cart last summer. People came, ate, enjoyed your endlessly creative dishes, respected your commitment to quality ingredients, and raved to others. In no time you had amassed a cult following, and were regularly flattered by glowing mentions in both the social media sphere and traditional media. By the end of summer, you’ve got a spot on an NPR show about street food under your belt. You pulled big crowds almost everywhere you went, and kept ’em coming even through the cold of November. Eventually, though, the permafreeze became just too much, and you closed up for the season.

Next spring, my street food rock star, as the city defrosts… what do you do?

If you’re Kenny Kim and Misako Ohba, owners and operators of the much lauded Foodie Cart, the answer is: octopus balls!

A bit of back story – in seeking out a sheltered location, they connected with Mikey of Mikey’s Late Night Slice. His pizza ‘shack’ (an outbuilding in a parking lot in the Short North with an adjacent dining room) operates in the evening, and lies dormant during the day. A perfect spot for Kenny & Misako to do their thing during Mikey’s off-hours. Win-win, right?

Except that, for a variety of different reasons, the crepe apparatus wouldn’t fit into the location. Having had their eye on a much smaller takoyaki griddle, the plan came together. Foodie Cart became Fresh Street, and crepes shifted over to takoyaki – a spherical pancake-meets-dumpling style Japanese snack food, traditionally made with a chunk of octopus flesh in the middle.

That word – tradition – was not exactly a central tenet of Foodie Cart’s repertoire, and same goes for this endeavor though perhaps to a lesser extent. While you can get straightforwardly traditional takoyaki here (and if my limited experience is any indication, they’re as good as anything on the streets of Japan…), part of the fun is (and always has been) seeing what these guys come up with next and enjoying how they cajole disparate influences into harmonious flavor pairings.

On our first visit, during their soft opening, they had 3 takoyaki options on the menu – octopus (true takoyaki), Japanese pork sausage, and okonomiyaki. Each allowed for a variety of different sauce & topping options – some gratis, others with a small upcharge.

I loved all 3 types. Each had a nice crispy exterior that tastes of toasted sesame oil and yields to a bread-like layer that transitions to a delicious gooey center. The octopus, unsurprisingly, has chunks of naturally chewy octopus in the middle, and the pork sausage version had pieces of pork sausage that taste surprisingly similar to a breakfast link (and none the worse for it). The okonomiyaki has shredded cabbage in it, which makes for a creative take on the traditional Japanese okonomiyaki pancake. In spite of being the vegetarian option it struck me as every bit the equal of the others. All orders are finished off with a takoyaki sauce, your choice of kewpie mayo or hot mustard, and bonito flakes.

Eight balls come with an order, is surprisingly filling, and is very reasonably priced at $5 per octet. The skill involved in making these is considerable, open for all to see, and makes for entertaining food theater.

The grand opening is today (4/14/11), check ’em out!

Kihachi (on the cheap!)

Cuisine: Japanese

2667 Federated Blvd

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We’re well documented when it comes to our abiding affection for Kihachi, and indeed find it to be one of the crown jewels of our local immigrant kitchen restaurant scene. That said, given the cost of entry, we’ve been a bit apprehensive about including such a high-end restaurant among the roster of the usual bang-for-the-buck dynamos here at alt.eats.

That’s not to say that Kihachi is a bad value. Given the uncompromising quality of the ingredients and the exceptional technical skills put to use in preparing them, it could even be considered a bargain. But, still, a conspicuously costly bargain.

Or at least that’s the perception. In previous visits, we’ve been repeatedly seduced by the siren song of Chef Kimura’s more exotic offerings, and though we’ve felt entirely rewarded for doing so, the down side of that approach (aside from the overdraft fees) is that we’ve ignored some of the menu’s Japanese staple dishes, whose prices are often far less dear.

So with that in mind, we set out to see both a) if it was possible for a couple to eat a full and satisfying meal for $25/person (tax & tip excluded), and b) if the food in that range was similar, in quality of execution, to the higher priced items.

There are essentially three menus to choose from – dinner, small plates, and daily small plate specials (which are written in Japanese, affixed to the regular small plates menu, and translated by the server).  Our usual approach has been to order a variety of small dishes from both of the small plates menus. This can get expensive if you intend to eat till full, so on this visit we ordered a dinner menu item each (most of which are less expensive than some of the small plates and larger in portions) and then augmented as our budget allowed.

First up, apps, starting with agedashi tofu ($6.00):

Simply put, this is the most compelling case I’ve seen made for why tofu can be delicious: four lightly battered cubes of fried tofu sit in a mix of dashi, soy, and mirin, and topped with seaweed, green onion, grated daikon and bonito flakes. The textures, flavors, and appearance all delight.

Next, fried burdock root (also called gobo, $5.00):

This is the root of the plant that leaves burrs on your clothes as you walk through the woods (burdock), sliced into thin sticks, lightly floured and fried, and presented with a side of seasoned salt. It’s as comforting as a french fry, but far more interesting with its potato-meets-artichoke flavor and slight snap to the bite.

Grilled capelin ($6.00):

That’s right, four little whole fish (capelin are members of the smelt family), mouths agape in expressions of abject terror. They shouldn’t act so surprised – they had to realize that they’re richly flavorful bites of ocean-tinged goodness.

Finally, for the apps, steamed clams in broth ($6.95):

Beautiful in its simplicity, this dish consists of a trio of beautifully plump and surprisingly chewy clams in a lovely broth, and a great garnish of unidentified but flavorful greens.

Now for the mains… first up, udon with duck ($13.00):

We’ve often remarked on how many of our favorite Japanese dishes can have a somewhat comfort food-y component to them. This dish epitomizes the sentiment with plenty of fat udon noodles bathed in a rich, meaty broth, topped off with a generous portion of exceptionally flavorful duck meat and scallions. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen proteins so carefully considered in the context of a soup – perfectly cooked (read – tender) poultry is truly the exception, and is indicative of masterful temperature control in the kitchen.

Next, nabeyaki udon ($12.00):

This contained the same udon noodles as in the last dish, but was topped with raw egg yolk, shrimp tempura, fish cakes slices, scallions, and more… and came in a bowl that retained enough heat to keep the broth boiling for at least a couple of minutes after serving. With the egg yolk mixed in, this broth was perhaps even richer than the previous, and among our extended group of 5 it was preferred by all except for one (your humbled author).As meals in a bowl go, you’d be hard pressed to find one more complete (or more satisfying).

With that, our meal for two is complete. Total cost: $48.95, green tea included. With one less app, we could’ve done it for $20/person, and we still would’ve left full and, really, just about as happy as if we’d spent 2 or 3 times as much. Needless to say, we highly recommend you to check Kihachi out, and if you go we’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.