A few weeks ago my roommate was asked to entertain two West Coast business associates. He frantically texted me asking if I knew about any sushi joints near his workplace in Fairfield. My response was one word: Akira.
Having developed a taste for sushi in college, I avoided the long-standing West Chester establishment for years after I returned to the area. To use a real estate term, let’s just say that the place does not have curb appeal. Akira is tucked in a strip mall with a Big Lots, the Twin Dragon Chinese buffet and a Radio Shack manned by the least enthusiastic employees on earth.
But if you can make it past the discount vacuum cleaners and monstrous plates of General Tso’s chicken, you can find your way to Akira. The interior greets customers with an inviting sushi bar, an intimate dining area and a separate room with low tables and floor cushions. Thankfully, something resembling rice paper covers the windows to block out the bargain shoppers and the Taco Bell across the parking lot.
With all of the distractions eliminated, it is easy to enjoy some of the best sushi in Cincinnati. Their Yellow Tail Nigiri ($3.50) is what comes to mind when I think of sushi. The rice is packed loose, allowing the pieces to melt apart in your mouth, and Chef Osamu Mukuda is more than generous with the cuts of fish.
“I didn’t buy a million dollar restaurant, I put my money into the food,” Mukuda says.
He started his restaurant in 1996, 15 years after he immigrated to the U.S. After college, he attended chef school and landed a job with the original Benihana restaurant in Tokyo. The company was expanding throughout North America at the time and sent Mukuda to its Cincinnati location.
After working in Cincinnati and Dayton, he decided to open his own place. He says when he first started he had to drive to the Cincinnati International Airport once a week to pick up his fish shipment from New York. Now, since sushi is more popular, he gets his fish shipped directly to his restaurant several times a week.
I can’t say that it is the freshest sushi I’ve ever had — I don’t think anyone living in the Midwest can expect West Coast-freshness in their saltwater fish — but at Akira this issue is not something noticeable. The hardcore sushi purists out there might be able to tell that the tuna flew instead of swam to the restaurant, but I generally can’t.
Akira carries a full roster of simple one-fish rolls, Americanized California and Philadelphia rolls, and some of the more elaborate sashimi-covered concoctions. My favorite is the Rainbow Roll ($12), which incorporates a California roll covered in tuna, yellow tail, salmon and shrimp sashimi. Squirted with a little spicy mayonnaise sauce, this is the perfect next step for the Kroger-sushi amateur. This one roll will allow you to experience the pure flavor of the fish while also giving you something familiar to chew on as well.
The staff is personable and prompt but small, so if they are busy expect a slight wait. Mukuda is quick, though; he has to be. During the week, he runs his nearly 80-seat restaurant with a staff of three and only brings on another three people for the weekend.
But sushi was built for speed. A huge fire that destroyed much of Tokyo informs the history of sushi. All street food carts with open flames were banned in the city, so the no-bake sushi vendors stepped in as Tokyo’s fast food restaurateurs. It is easy to imagine Mukuda flipping rolls and nigiri out at top speed to serve hungry Japanese on their lunch breaks.
His tradesmen-like precision fits well with Akira’s no-frills attitude.
The atmosphere is so laid back and the prices so reasonable that one could quickly fall in with the crowd of regulars who frequent Akira throughout the week. For me, sushi is not an everyday eat. My system is too weak for it. So if I land at Akira when I’m not craving raw meat, I typically veer toward their Udon Noodle Bowls ($8.50).
The soup-style noodles remind me of Southern-style dumplings: The heartiness of both dishes is very similar. Akira’s broth is not overly flavored with shallots, which is the downfall of many Asian soups, in my opinion. But the boldness of the broth balances well with the strong, hearty noodles.
I can only imagine the looks on the faces of the well-dressed pharmaceutical industry insiders as my roommate pulled into the parking lot in the middle of the week. He says he loved it, but reported that he was slightly bored since one of his business associates was Japanese and spent most of the time chatting with Chef Mukuda.
Mukuda says that his business is split almost in half between Japanese customers seeking traditional food and American customers seeking the more popular sushi items.
Traveling extensively before settling in Ohio, Mukuda says that Japan-based Toyota’s presence in this area helped him decide to start a business here, but he has stayed because he fell in love with an American woman. They now have three children in high school and college. His family seems to reflect the atmosphere at the restaurant.
This mix of Japanese and American influence shines at Akira. The steady stream of regulars, the casual atmosphere, the reasonable prices and the mix of traditional and Americanized menu items all make Akira feel more like Cheers than some bubble of poorly imitated Japanese culture dropped into the suburbs.
Go: 7759 Tylersville Road, West Chester
Hours: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Entrée Prices: $8.50-$27
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Fish, chicken and soups
Accessibility: Fully accessible