Vibrant flavors rule in sushi offerings

April 17, 1997|By Laura Rottenberg | Laura Rottenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The film director Akira Kurosawa has always had a thing for crowd scenes. And his movies almost invariably exhibit an affection for dark and moody places. So it is no wonder that Akira, a tiny, crowded and atmospheric new restaurant and bar across from the Hollins Market, was named in part after the eminent Japanese filmmaker.

Owner Gin Nakagawa points out that Akira also is a popular name in Japan, meaning bright or shiny, and that there is a popular futuristic cartoon of the same name in that country.

Whatever its namesake, Akira is a funky little SoWeBo hangout turning out tasty and affordable (albeit not strictly traditional) sushi.

There are other reasons to take a seat at the bar or in the dining room upstairs: Cans of National Bohemian are a mere 75 cents, the pool table upstairs is never too busy and the sound system can belt out an all-Kiss musical review (obviously at the urging of Kelly, the green-haired barmaid/sushi chef who on occasion sports a classic Kiss T-shirt).

Nakagawa, who also owns the Sushi Cafe on Thames Street in Fells Point, is still working out some of the details at Akira. A new chef is being trained to make tempura, and the bar will soon add 10 selections of draft beer. As things stand, the draft beer is the luscious De Groen's Marzen, and there is plenty on the menu from which to choose even without the tempura.

On the evening of our visit, we tried a bowl of miso soup and an order of chicken curry before diving into the sushi menu. The soup was a standard murky white miso dotted with crunchy scallions and small tofu cubes -- very pleasant and restorative, but nothing to wax rhapsodic over. The chicken curry, served on a bed of white rice, included chunks of chicken, onion and carrot in a deep-yellow curry sweetened with a big dollop of mango chutney. It, too, was pleasant and homey but didn't linger long in my memory.

Instead of trying one of the fried rice dishes or the teriyaki, we decided to focus on rice in sushi form, and to try the teriyaki in the guise of a ginger beef sushi roll (delicious).

Akira has two long pages of house sushi rolls, ranging from traditional (unagi roll) to flat-out wacky (Akira roll with sun-dried tomato, cream cheese and tuna). Many of the rolls' names show a real inventiveness and sense of humor (note the Mothra roll, the True Grit roll and the Captain Nemo roll).

None of our selections was visually stunning: the maki (nori-wrapped rice with filling in the center) were loosely rolled and cut unevenly, prone to falling apart in the ascent from plate to mouth (by way of chopsticks). Flavors, however, were vibrant, with crunchy vegetables and very fresh fish. We enjoyed the contrast of a spicy eel roll with the flavors in a picklehead roll, a seductive combination of silky mackerel, cucumber, scallion and dab of Japanese mayonnaise.

A California roll (offered with real back fin crab meat or imitation "crab stick") was a nice, fat disk that married the flavors and textures of crab, avocado and cucumber.

We departed without dessert (there was no green tea ice cream or red bean jelly to be had that night), but vowed to return to Akira for more sushi. Next time we'll even try the "sake-tini," a gin martini with sake.

Akira

1120 Hollins St.

410-837-1111

Hours: Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner and Tuesday through Friday for lunch

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $1.50-$6.95; entrees, $2-$9.95

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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