Nichiban: Nothing special on the table

February 05, 1993|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Restaurant Critic

I'm always surprised when someone tells me that one or another of Baltimore's Japanese restaurants is a favorite because I find them all pretty much the same -- and all pretty good. For sushi, tempura and the like you have a choice of Kawasaki, the Sushi Cafe and Shogun downtown. (Alas, the charming Mitsu has closed.) If you want the Japanese steakhouse experience, you can eat at one of the Nichi Bei Kais. You don't even have to go to a Japanese restaurant to get decent Japanese food: Many of Baltimore's Chinese and Korean places have sushi bars and good versions of popular Japanese dishes on their menus.

With all this competition, the new Nichiban of Federal Hill is going to have a hard time finding a niche for itself. It will, of course, attract people in the neighborhood; but the food isn't going to lure folks away from the other sushi bars in the city.

Nichiban has a sophisticated-looking bar and dining room, highly designed with soothing neutrals set off by bold oil paintings. (That's a sushi bar, of course. Nichiban doesn't have a liquor license.) The staff is pleasant, although our waitress was overworked the night we were there. But our meal was lackluster.

Nichiban bills itself as a sushi bar first, and the choices are extensive. Unless you have some specific likes and dislikes, you might as well get one of the "chef's choice" combination dinners. (They include whatever's freshest in the market that day; but if you have something you particularly want, the chef will try to accommodate you.) A sushi and sashimi combo had a variety of raw seafood, by itself and on little balls of rice, prettily arranged on a board with the usual accompaniments of fresh ginger and horseradish. Chirashi, raw seafood on a bed of vinegared rice, looked even better in its handsome Japanese bowl.

But my two sushi experts gave the dinners mixed reviews -- nothing very negative, but no great enthusiasm either. One thing very much in Nichiban's favor, though: Neither dinner included those fake crab legs that seem to be cropping up everywhere.

Seafood tempura was the only major disappointment of the evening. Limp, overcooked vegetables came with the shrimp and scallops, all of them stacked greasily on a doily. Try instead steak teriyaki. The presentation isn't as attractive as the sushi dinners, but the rare and tender slices of beef were flavorful in their slightly sweet sauce. It comes with bean sprouts, zucchini, xTC onions and mushrooms.

All dinners include a delicate miso soup and an iceberg lettuce salad. If you need more as a first course, skip the calamari in its too-salty batter (fried dishes aren't a success here) and get perhaps gyoza dumplings -- although the taste of the shrimp paste may be a bit strong for some. We liked best a seaweed salad with two colors of seaweed sparked by sesame seeds and red pepper.

We skipped dessert -- rainbow sherbet or chocolate ice cream -- in favor of cups of tea. But instead of the usual delicate but flavorful Japanese tea, this tasted like nothing much at all.

Nichiban

Where: 1035-37 S. Charles St.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, open until 11:30 p.m. Friday; 12:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Saturday.

Credit cards accepted: AE, D, DC, MC, V.

Features: Japanese food.

Non-smoking section? Yes.

Call: (410) 837-0816.

Entree prices: $8-$13.

** 1/2

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