Walk into Sushi Hana and you'll immediately start to decompress. Tranquil music plays at just the right level in the background, as a smiling waitress in a lavender kimono jacket hands you a steaming towel. She'll bring another at the end of your meal, along with fruity Japanese bubble gum wrapped up in a tiny box. Yes, Sushi Hana knows how to start and finish a meal.
In between, there are problems.
Still, the staff at owner Po Chan's Japanese restaurant is so friendly, and the blond-wood and woven-bamboo decor so simple and right, you might end up enjoying your meal here, especially if you didn't travel far for it.
The one dish that we liked without reservation was the broiled freshwater eel, served in a sweet brown glaze. That might not be the first thing to catch your eye among the 20 appetizers on Sushi Hana's menu, though.
What might catch it is one of our least favorite dishes -- the beef kushiyaki. The menu described this as "tender bits" of skewered, barbecued beef. Big chunks of a poor grade of beef would be more accurate. Another appetizer, ika tempura, would have been better if the four rings of squid weren't so chewy. We liked their crunchy tempura batter coating, though, and the fact that they were served with an assortment of fried vegetables.
Miso soup and a small salad with fresh-tasting Asian dressing are served with dinners, so you might not want to order appetizers at all.
But entrees at Sushi Hana are not problem-free. The seafood teriyaki looked like a spectacular dish, with four large shrimp and sea scallops, a small lobster tail and a long fillet of salmon served sizzling on an iron plate. But most of the seafood was overcooked, with the shrimp and lobster so tough and stringy that they weren't worth salvaging.
Under the "traditional casseroles" section of the menu, the beef shabu-shabu caught our eye. Be warned, this is a hands-on meal, brought to your table on a burner for you to cook. Our iron caldron threatened to boil over as we added thinly sliced beef to the broth filled with fat and skinny rice noodles, bok choy, tofu slices, pink-tinged fish cake, shiitake mushrooms, carrots and scallions. Unless you're a big fan of interactive dinners, it's not worth the work.
The best thing that can be said about the sashimi-sushi combination is that it was beautifully presented on a round, black lacquer tray. There were five pieces of nigiri sushi on rice, a tuna roll, and thin sashimi slivers of tuna, salmon and yellowtail. We gave it a few extra points for pieces of octopus and clam, and subtracted those points for slices of fake crab. Ultimately, we decided the quality of the fish was acceptably ordinary. Nothing glistened with exceptional freshness.
At Sushi Hana, dishes are brought to the table as they are ready, which for us meant one by one. That suited us fine since we were sharing. Of course, scoops of red bean and ginger ice cream arrived at the same time, because they needed no preparation. The ginger in particular is worth ordering, if you don't want to hold out for the bubble gum.
6 E. Pennsylvania Ave., Towson
Hours: Open Tuesday to Friday for lunch and Tuesday to Sunday for dinner
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$7.95; entrees, $9.95-$18.95
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; Good ***; Fair or uneven **; Poor *
Pub Date: 02/25/99