Missteps hinder new Kiku Sushi

July 15, 1999|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,Special to the Sun

The bowl was huge, flat-bottomed and wooden. In it, a chef at Kiku Sushi in Federal Hill was stirring vinegared rice with a wooden paddle, checking to make sure it had the right consistency. The short-grain rice needs to be soft enough to be pliable but firm enough to hold its shape.

To my untrained eye, he seemed to know what he was doing. But when we later sampled a variety of sushi, we knew a mistake had been made, either with that batch of rice or one made earlier. The too-soft rice fell apart in our jumbo sea dragon roll and made other sushi we tried difficult to eat.

Rice wasn't our only concern. The eel draped on top of our sea dragon roll had an overly fishy taste. Pearl-size beads of salmon roe looked gorgeous inside a cup fashioned of nori, the seaweed wrapper for maki sushi, but they were not at their peak of freshness.

When I sampled some nigiri sushi, raw fish on rice, I struggled to bite through a thick cut of mediocre salmon. A California roll was smaller than usual and had only small amounts of crab stick shreds inside. It was not a good sign for a Japanese restaurant with the word sushi in its name.

Pong Yang opened Kiku Sushi in April, after closing Maguro, a sushi bar he and his wife, Angela, had run in a temporary location in Glen Burnie. The new restaurant on Light Street is small and attractive, with lights hanging from bamboo shades and inside rice-paper globes. There are 10 seats at the sushi bar, which dominates the room with its wooden arbor strung with deep-blue flags.

We did manage to order something from the sushi bar that made us happy -- a maki roll with tuna and asparagus. Each of the six slices held a cross-section of tender-crisp asparagus spears. Squares of pink maguro tuna were balanced on top. The presentation was clever and, aside from the soft rice, the textures and flavors were perfect. It reminded me of the impressive sushi I had eaten at Maguro last year.

Among our starters, we also liked appetizer rolls called nigimaki, made with thin slices of long-marinated cooked beef wrapped around lengths of scallion. Fried gyoza dumplings were flavorful, stuffed with a garlic-seasoned meat filling; and glazed skewers of chicken yakitori, threaded with carrots and onions, were fine.

But an appetizer portion of shrimp tempura fell short, mainly because the two large shrimp were encased in an excessive amount of batter. We also missed the traditional dipping sauce for tempura -- a thin sauce mixed with daikon radish. We were told to use the same sauce that arrived with our dumplings.

Dinners at Kiku Sushi are served with a small salad dressed in vinaigrette, ground black pepper and sesame seeds, and a bowl of full-flavored miso soup. There are Korean and Chinese dishes on the menu, as well as Japanese standards like tempura and teriyaki.

To say that the seafood teriyaki was different than usual would be an understatement. The tiny shrimp, tender rings of squid, canned mussels and bay scallops weren't grilled with a teriyaki glaze; they swam in a soupy sauce with onions and bell peppers. The dish hardly seemed Japanese.

We liked the Chinese entree of chicken kan pung ki better. Chunks of batter-fried chicken had a Sichuan-style spicy red garlic sauce with bits of red and green pepper. There also are several Korean entrees on the menu, like bulgoki (Korean barbecue).

Expect the usual red bean and green tea ice creams for dessert, and hot green tea. On a summer night, hot tea might be the last thing you want. Ask someone on the staff -- which tries very hard to please -- to bring you a homemade ice tea instead.

Want to suggest a restaurant for reviewing? We welcome your input. Send e-mail to kathhigham@aol.com or write to Kathryn Higham, Newsroom-Fifth Floor, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.

Kiku Sushi

1017 Light St.

410-468-4468

Hours: Open daily for dinner; lunch Tuesday through Saturday

Credit cards: All major cards

Prices: Appetizers, $1.50-$6.95; entrees, $9.95-$17.95

Food: **

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; good ***; fair or uneven **; poor *

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