Restaurant trend on a roll

Sushi: Neighboring businesses have made Towson a `hot spot' for the Asian fare.

October 26, 2004|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

A battle is under way in the heart of Towson, and it's being fought with chopsticks and neon signs.

The latest competitor to enter the fray, a "rotating" sushi bar, opened its doors last week - across the street from two restaurants that serve sushi and within three blocks of five others.

The proliferation of sashimi and California rolls in the county seat is so hard to ignore that it has become a joke among some government workers: What do you want for lunch today? Sushi or sushi?

For Baltimore County Fire Capt. Glenn A. Blackwell, either answer will do. He eats sushi when he is working nearby, but also travels to Towson from his Northwest Baltimore County home to dine at one of the many establishments offering the fare in one form or another.

"They all have specialties. Some stick with the traditional. Some try different things," he said, adding: "If I'm looking for a variety of sushi, I'm going to the York Road corridor."

"This," said restaurateur Tony Yan, "is a hot spot."

Yan and a partner opened Kyodai Rotating Sushi Bar on Pennsylvania Avenue at the former site of a Pizzeria Uno. It is directly across the street from Thai One On and San Sushi Too, managed by Bruce Sesum.

Sesum said the competition is a "good thing."

"The more competition there is, the higher the standards will be," he said. "It's good that you don't have to go into the city. It gives Towson more choices. We all offer different styles. We're more of a mom-and-pop type place."

Those in the Towson sushi business liken their situation to Little Italy. Each restaurant has its own specialty, service and atmosphere. More restaurants mean a greater volume of customers for them all.

"Who knows? Maybe one day this will be Little Japan," Yan said. "I don't want people to close their businesses. People will come here and try this one and that one."

Among the choices are Sushi Hana, Towson Best, The Orient, Purim Oak, Olive and Sesame, and another newcomer, Jasmine Asian Bistro, which still has its grand opening sign out front.

Alisa Hsu Chan whose husband, Andy Chan, opened Jasmine Asian Bistro this summer, pointed out that they have dishes from places such as Vietnam and Singapore. But they also offer sushi.

"It's the new fashion, just like Asian clothes," Chan said.

If there's a sushi demographic, apparently Towson fits it. "I think the students at Towson University and Goucher [College] have more sophisticated palates - that's a good piece of it," said Diane Neas, a Baltimore restaurant consultant.

Fronda Cohen, marketing director for the county Department of Economic Development, agrees that sushi restaurants suggest a certain level of sophistication not always associated with Towson. But she says the county seat is no longer just a suburb, but a central business district.

Employees from several major corporations, hospitals, courts and county government -and residents with average household incomes of $76,000 -help support the local sushi trade, Cohen said. "What you have here," she added, "are people who go out to eat."

To set his sushi bar apart from the others, Yan has installed a conveyor belt that allows customers to pick small plates of passing sushi. Prices are based on the plate's color.

"They are crazy about this in Asia, in New York and on the West Coast," said Yan, adding that the system appeals to a time-pressed lunch crowd and to people who want to try different types of sushi. The concept is credited to a sushi chef from Osaka, Japan, who reportedly got the idea watching beer bottles rotate at a brewery.

"The gimmick only attracts people once or twice," Yan said. "It's quality and good service that keep them coming back."

Greg Mayer and Jon Anders, insurance brokers who work in Towson, were curious about the newest sushi bar on the block.

"It's pretty good. I had heard of a similar concept in San Francisco," Mayer said. "It's different than the others."

But both were at a loss when it came to guessing why Towson has become something of a mecca for sushi.

"I can't say it's `yuppieland,'" Mayer said. "I'm kind of surprised by it."

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