My friend said, "But I don't do sashimi," when I invited her to eat sushi with me. Sashimi is a Japanese dish of sliced raw fish, often available at a sushi bar.
We met in front of Beluga, Hyde Park's newest hip eatery. Beluga's contemporary building has been under renovation much of this year and looks nothing like the Melting Pot, its former inhabitant. The sleek interior echoed Japanese minimalism, with cool eggshell walls, polished white pine floors and windows flooded with bright summer evening light.
We had 7:30 p.m. reservations, but found the dining rooms and sushi bar relatively empty. That changed significantly while we were there, with sushi-experienced twenty- and thirty-somethings, neighbors and Hyde Park strollers eager to sample the fare of the month-old bistro.
While I've eaten sushi before, I've usually benefited from having a more knowledgeable person order for me. By the end of the evening, I had a good grounding in how to order sushi myself — and I enjoyed the learning at Beluga.
Presented with both a sushi à la carte menu and a more traditional menu, we ordered from both. We shared a starter of Edamame ($4), soy bean pods quickly boiled with coarse salt. These brilliant green legumes had a pleasing texture and a subtle flavor with salty highlights.
The large portion was delivered in a square wooden bowl on a wooden tray. From the à la carte menu, we chose the Spider Roll ($12.95), six pieces of crisp and succulent soft-shell crab, centered inside seaweed and a mildly tangy sauce and rolled in vinegared rice with a bit of sesame seed. They were superb.
I chose the Sushi Regular ($17.95), which included six pieces of sushi, a California roll and soup. The miso (rice and soy bean paste) soup was a dark broth with tofu and toy, an Asian vegetable similar to spinach. Slightly salty and mild, it was a restrained palate cleanser. The sushi was impressively displayed, and I was eager to start. Avocado, imitation crab, cucumber, seaweed, sesame seeds and the now familiar sticky rice make up a California roll. Rich and savory, the roll is cut into six generous pieces. The Sushi Regular included tuna, yellow tail, salmon, shrimp, octopus and red snapper. With the exception of the octopus, each sushi portion was wrapped around a finger of rice dabbed with wasabi, a Japanese horseradish. The red snapper was my favorite — moist, tender and full-flavored over its rice bed with wasabi. Black seaweed tied the chewy octopus to the non-spiced rice parcel. The velvety texture of the tuna was a pleasant surprise. Part of the ceremony of sushi is eating slivers of pickled ginger between pieces of sushi, which I thoroughly enjoyed. While sampling the remaining pieces (the sweet shrimp, the richly textured yellow tail and the delicate salmon), I found myself intrigued by my friend's plate.
The Shrimp and Vegetable Tempura Combination ($21.95) provided a beautiful and dramatic presentation on a black lacquered tray with red sections. The Combination also incorporated tuna, salmon and shrimp sushi, a California roll and miso soup. Positioned in a center section, the refreshing salad of cucumber and imitation crab with a mild vinaigrette was called Sunomono. The delicious Pot Stickers were six tender packages encapsulating cabbage, bits of pork and mixed with rice vinegar. The tempura selections included shrimp, sweet potato, red pepper, asparagus, broccoli and eggplant. While the assortment was impressive, I found the batter too thick, adding crunch, but little flavor and a greasy feel.
Service throughout the evening was attentive and helpful, but not invasive. It was clear that the staff had been well trained to assist diners about sushi and that I was not the only neophyte in the room.
Although Graeter's was just around the corner on Hyde Park Square, we chose Sonoma's Japanese ice cream ($3 per scoop). Red Bean ice cream was pale pink and mildly sweet with small beans sprinkled throughout, providing an interesting consistency. In spite of the buttery quality of the Green Tea ice cream, it just tasted green. Mango ice cream has a bright flavor that was considerable, in addition to a creamy quality. It was easily our favorite of the three.
With the assistance of my friends and the Beluga staff, I was pleased with my first experience ordering sushi. Perhaps next time I'll sit at the sushi bar up front, so I can watch the chef in action.
After all, I'm experienced now. ©
Go: 3520 Edwards Road, Hyde Park
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 510 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 511 p.m.
Prices: Moderate to expensive, including the à la carte menu
Payment: Major credit cards
Vegetarian Friendliness: Options available on both menus