I was a sushi virgin. I even traveled to Japan last year. Yet I somehow managed to avoid traditional Japanese fare while there. (In fact, I lost six pounds.) Imagine my anxiety when I was asked to review Jo An, a Japanese restaurant known for its sushi. I did what any picky eater would do: forced others to come with me.
To my surprise, several friends volunteered to accompany my husband and me on a recent weekday evening. It seems Jo An had developed a reputation among those in the sushi-know for excellent hand-rolled sushi. Unfortunately, its location — tucked into an Erlanger office building off Mineola Pike near the airport — makes it difficult to find.
We were seated promptly at a large table for six, surrounded by other large parties of mostly professionals, perhaps coming from work. The simple, minimalist décor set the tone of a fine restaurant, although most folks were dressed in business and casual attire.
I savored my Kirin ($6.50), one of the Japanese beers featured, soothing my anxiety as I quickly scanned the menu, searching for a selection that I recognized. Boiled soybean. Seaweed. Squid. Octopus. Sea Urchin. I recognized them all right. But I wasn't sure if I could eat them.
My friends, sensing my uneasiness, suggested they select a few sushi choices — "rookie picks" — that my husband and I might enjoy. Additionally, they recommended I order something from the tempura selections, which are various meats, seafood or vegetables battered and lightly fried. I wasn't exactly thinking deep-fried bar appetizers, but I felt a little more comfortable.
I watched in amazement as my friends ordered various sushi combinations with ease: tuna, shrimp, octopus, California rolls, crab, and plum-basil rolls ($3.95-$4.95 for two pieces each). The platters were a fresh assortment, perfect for sharing with a group of friends. As the first few selections arrived at our table, our guests were indeed pleased. I was impressed by the presentation of each of these tiny bundles, delicately laid out in rice, then rolled in nori (seaweed) and sliced into rolls. Even the tiny crab nested on top of a bundle of rice, tied neatly with a strip of roasted nori. Everything was beautifully prepared and expertly presented.
Our friends showed us how to season the sushi with wasabi, a kind of Japanese horseradish I later learned is actually a Japanese root that is dried, powdered then made into a paste. By dabbing a little of this into soy sauce, one can customize a "hot sauce" for dipping.
I soon discovered that when using chopsticks, one cannot cut a sushi roll into an even tinier bite. You just have to stuff the whole thing in and chew.
I started — and ended — my sushi experience with a California roll. I was trying to be open-minded, but something about the texture of the nori (it's seaweed) turned me off. I decided not to waste perfectly good sushi rolls on the rookie and left them for my friends who were eagerly devouring each, anyway. My husband was more adventurous than I: He tried several, including the crab and octopus, and had no problem getting them down.
Several of us ordered salads, including my Kureson Goma Ae ($3.95), pressed, chilled watercress with a sesame dressing, which I enjoyed. Others had the Yasai Salada ($4.95) which looked like a typical American salad of iceberg lettuce and shredded carrots, with a ginger Japanese dressing.
I did try the Yasai (vegetable) Tempura ($4.50), with steamed rice ($1.50). I stuck with the pieces I recognized, like shiitake mushroom and squash ... and enjoyed them. I left the unknown for others. One friend ordered Gyu Niku Teriyaki ($9.95, grilled beef teriyaki), and although he found it tasty, he thought the portion was extremely small compared to other Japanese restaurant experiences.
From my experienced guests, I learned that Jo An served excellent, fresh sushi, though a little on the pricey side. They thoroughly enjoyed their selections and said they would recommend it to others.
They also speculated that perhaps this establishment is not for the first-time Japanese diner. With so many restaurants offering sushi fare these days, they suggested that another more "California-style" restaurant would be a better choice for a sushi virgin. But for an expertly presented, authentic Japanese sushi experience, Jo An is a hidden gem. ©
Go: 3940 Olympic Boulevard, Suite 135, Erlanger
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Dinner, Monday-Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m. Closed on Sunday.
Payment: Major credit cards accepted.
Vegetarian Friendliness: Many vegetarian and seafood options.