Tag Archives: sushi

Choo-Choo-Choosey Sushi

June 25, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Who needs a menu with pictures when the actual dishes are floating past your table on a carousel conveyor belt?

Yamato Sushi Train & Grill leaves little to the imagination with Omaha’s only sushi train.

If you like what you see, just grab a dish. It’s a fun sushi experience that was first developed in Japan and has become popular in my hometown of Hong Kong.

I visit Yamato Sushi Train & Grill for a Thursday date night. As the steady stream of sushi plates make their way down the conveyor belt, a waitress explains that the color of each sushi plate indicates its price: black plates cost $5, purple costs $4.5, red costs $4, orange costs $3, and green costs $2.5.

Dancing Eel

Tongue-tied? Don’t worry. You don’t even need to know the name of what your heart desires. But be careful that you don’t grab too many items. The final bill adds up quickly with a stack of empty plates on the table.

Desserts are available on the sushi merry-go-round on Fridays and weekends, in addition to the otherwise daily train of maki rolls (where all ingredients are rolled into a sheet of seaweed), gunkan maki (where a strip of seaweed wraps around the rice ball leaving room for toppings), uramaki (where the seaweed holds fillings in the inside and the rice is on the outside), sashimi (slices of raw seafood), and appetizers (such as seaweed salad and edamame) for lunch and dinner service.

We snag a plate of uni (sea urchin) followed by salmon roe gunkan maki to start things off. Fresh sea urchin tastes sweet and creamy with bright and vibrant shades of yellow-orange. Yamato’s sea urchin is decent and pairs well with the juicy, red-orange salmon eggs bursting with saltwater flavor.

We wait and watch for the next plate to tantalize our grabby fingers. We catch octopus sashimi with lemon ponzu sauce, spice-rubbed seared ahi tuna sashimi, seaweed salad, inari sushi (rice ball wrapped in a tofu puff), Omaha roll (with spicy lobster, cucumber, avocado, imitation crab, and mango sauce on top), eel cucumber roll, and a Naruto roll (avocado, salmon, and tuna wrapped with a slice of cucumber).

We also order miso soup and a bowl of pork ramen noodles with tonkatsu (a pork bone-based) soup from the waitress.

California Roll

Tuna and octopus sashimi plates are highlights of the meal. Rubbed with Nanami seasoning (a seven-chili pepper mix), the ahi tuna sashimi was seared on the outside and rare on the inside. Drizzled in lemon ponzu sauce, the octopus tastes light and refreshing with slices of lemon placed between the slices of sashimi.

When asked about the most popular dish in the restaurant, both waitresses and the shop manager boasted a wide variety of menu options. The waitress recommends the bento box for its value—at $11.95, diners can select a chicken, beef, shrimp, salmon, or tofu main dish to go with side dishes including California roll, shumai, miso soup, salad, and rice. Shop manager Alex Walker says the fried rice at Yamato Sushi is “addictive” and also suggests the lo mein and pad thai.

Walker says Yamato receives shipments of seafood from both coasts three times a week. Although Yamato’s owner also runs the La Vista restaurant Dragon Café (serving Chinese and Japanese cuisine), also with sushi on the menu, the two venues are very different from a design standpoint. Contrary to Dragon Café’s traditional Chinese-inspired interior design, Yamato is going for a decidedly Japanese vibe with simplified, modern décor.

Hygiene and efficiency are a top priority in any establishment dealing with raw ingredients. Yamato does not disappoint. The sushi train is even enclosed with a clear roll-top lid (a feature not typical at the sushi trains I’ve experienced in Japan and Hong Kong). Walker says the train is cleaned two to three times every day.

Although dishes on the sushi train were sometimes lacking in their presentation—some rolls were not as tightly rolled as they should have been—this restaurant is a must-try for local foodies or folks looking for an entertaining, fast, and convenient bite to eat.

Assorted nigiri and Omaha Roll

Sushi Train from Japan to the World

In Japan, Yoshiaki Shiraishi is credited with inventing “rotation sushi” to solve his staffing problem in 1958. He was inspired to deliver “no-frills sushi” on a conveyor belt after visiting the Asahi Brewery. Dubbed “sushi innovator” by The New York Times, Shiraishi perfected the art of sushi train operation at a speed of 8 centimeters (approximately 3 inches) per second to ensure safety without sacrificing efficiency. The concept was an instant hit at the Osaka World Expo in 1970. His restaurant, Genroku Sushi, expanded rapidly between the 1970s and 1990s.

Genroku Sushi was introduced to Hong Kong—where I was born and raised—in the early 1990s, a time when Japanese pop culture was taking Asia by storm. Marketing its sushi at HKD $10 (approximately USD $1.28) and HKD $15 (USD $1.91) per plate, Genroku Sushi was a popular hangout for high school and college students as well as local families seeking inexpensive foreign food.

Unlike traditional Japanese restaurants, rotation sushi was accessible to the mass public with a price point comparable to fast food. Sushi train chains mushroomed across Hong Kong as my generation grew up playing video games from Japan, watching J-Drama, listening to J-Pop, buying Japanese fashion and cosmetics, and learning to speak Japanese. Genroku Sushi contributed to introducing the culinary art of Japan, inspiring many to pursue travel, study, or work in Japan.

Although Genroku Sushi has lost its international footprint and can only be found in Japan today, the conveyor belt sushi concept it pioneered has gained popularity around the world. And in the fall of 2017, a sushi train finally arrived in Omaha in the form of Yamato Sushi Train & Grill.


Visit yamatosushitraingrill.com for more information.

This article was printed in the May/June 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

The pictured sushi platter was plated by chefs at Yamato Sushi Train; it was not selected off the establishment’s sushi train.

Umami

October 18, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

My first thought when I saw the crowd of customers waiting to be seated at Umami: Good thing I made a reservation. Diners occupied every table, booth, and bar stool at the city’s latest and most talked-about sushi restaurant, which opened in Bellevue in February.

The restaurant’s popularity shows that many local diners are hooked on sushi, and they’re willing to drive across town and endure long waits to get their fish fix. It also shows that Chef Keen Zheng made a good move when he left behind sushi-dense New York for Nebraska. Zheng has realized his dream of opening his own restaurant and helped fill the void of sushi spots in the Galvin Road area.

Zheng’s culinary background includes a stint at Sushi Nakazawa, one of New York’s top sushi establishments. The restaurant is run by Daisuke Nakazawa, a former apprentice of Jiro Ono, a world-renowned sushi chef in Japan and subject of the acclaimed documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Umami’s vast menu features a variety of delicately prepared nigiri (seafood gently pressed over seasoned rice) and high-quality sashimi (thin slices of fish such as tuna or salmon served without rice). Also available are sushi rolls, known as maki, made with raw or cooked fish, vegetables, nori, rice, and other ingredients.

Those with seafood allergies or aversions to raw fish shouldn’t let that deter them. The menu includes sushi prepared with cooked ingredients, as well as teriyaki and hibachi dinners, noodle dishes, fried rice, soups, or Thai and Chinese entrees.

My dining partner and I both liked the pink lady roll, named for the pink soy paper that holds shrimp tempura, avocado, cream cheese, and asparagus. Those who don’t care for nori (seaweed wrappers) may prefer the soy paper alternative. A slightly spicy sauce drizzled on top lends a nice heat that’s not overwhelming. There are excellent versions of tiger shrimp sushi and inari sushi. The latter consists of marinated and fried tofu pouches stuffed with rice.

We also enjoyed the spicy mango shrimp roll, filled with cooked shrimp, mango, tempura flakes, and just enough spice to perk up the palate. Less successful, the coconut shrimp roll—crispy shrimp and Fuji apples topped with avocado and coconut flakes—has an appealing blend of creamy and crunchy textures, but coconut sauce on top dominates and is a little sweeter than we’d prefer.

Vegetarian options include a fresh and light farmer’s roll with slivered cucumber, asparagus, bean curd skin, lettuce, avocado, squash, and oshinko (Japanese pickled radish). Zheng is an expert at preparing sushi, each item well-crafted and beautifully presented. Diners who nab seats at the sushi bar can watch as he and his team hold command.

The staff is friendly and knowledgeable, but service can be slow, especially during prime dinner hours. Our server had a packed house to deal with the night we dined, resulting in long wait times to place and receive our order. Still, I’d happily return to try more of the menu. It’s hard to pass up quality, reasonably priced sushi executed with Zheng’s level of skill.

Rating:

food: 4 stars

service: 3.5 stars

ambiance: 4 stars

Price: $$

Overall: 4 stars

Visit umamiasianne.com for more information.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Groovy Gravy

January 12, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

UPDATE (Jan. 12, 2017) : After the publication of the January/February issue of Encounter Magazine, Cask Republic announced that it would no longer sell poutine.

“We realize that the food aspect, especially the poutine, was not financially viable,” says Ryan Frickel, co-owner of Cask Republic. Snacks will soon be available, and the bar allows patrons to bring in food from several area restaurants.

* * * * *

Foodies generally regard the 1950s as the nadir of 20th century cuisine in North America. It brought us TV dinners, jello salads, and tuna casseroles. However, it also brought us a Canadian dish that, depending on your disposition, is either a trinity of salty, starchy, fatty goodness, or a cardiologist’s dream for stirring up new business (in truth, it’s probably both).

Poutine is, essentially, french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds. Like the Reuben sandwich, there’s been a few claims to its origin, but the general consensus is that it came from rural Quebec in the late 1950s. It’s a prominent staple for restaurants downtown (Block 16) as well as Benson (1912, Benson Brewery). For the Cask Republic bar in Dundee, it’s their primary focus.

Co-owners Ryan Frickel and Craig Lundin opened Cask Republic this past summer in the former home of the popular French Bulldog restaurant. Frickel came to the decision to focus on poutine after eating it in Benson last year. Frickel says there have been poutine-focused eateries sprouting up on the West and East coasts for the past few years. Frickel wanted to be the first in Nebraska to have such an eatery.

“Who doesn’t like meat and potatoes in Nebraska?” Frickel says.

poutine1For their version of poutine, the Cask Republic double-fries their french fries to get them crispy enough to withstand the heavy coating of gravy. Their beef gravy (they also have chicken and vegetarian variations) is a combination of homemade beef stock, spices, herbs like rosemary, and some chicken. Finally, their cheese curds, served at room temperature, top the dish. When you bite into one of the curds, it should sound faintly like a dog toy.

“If it’s not squeaky, then people in the poutine world get super pissed off,” Frickel says.

Like other greasy spoon staples such as hamburgers and hash browns, there have been plenty of high-end takes on poutine. 1912 has a variation that includes duck. Block 16’s gravy incorporates a red wine reduction. The Cask Republic has poutines that include burnt ends, and even “seasonal” poutines, including turkey for the holidays. Still, focusing your menu on dish that’s basically french fries and gravy is risky. Frickel, however, compares poutine to other dishes that are now commonplace around Omaha.

“[We] kind of likened it to sushi, where 20 years ago, people in Omaha either didn’t know what sushi was or never tried it. But on the coast, it was starting to explode,” Frickel says.

Of course, if you’re going to clog your arteries with starch, cheese, and gravy, you might as well go all out and wash it down with a brew. That’s where beer comes in at Cask Republic. Frickel and minority- owner Alex Gunhus are both beer enthusiasts; they traveled to breweries throughout the United States to come up with their beer menu. Frickel says he eventually wants to build his own brewery inside the Cask Republic.

“There’s nothing like that in the Dundee area, which blows my mind,” Frickel says. “We want to be the first to do that.”

Visit facebook.com/caskrepublic for more information.

Ready for Omaha

April 29, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Mention ramen, and the comparison to cheap packages of the staple college dorm food seems obligatory. Though powder-flavored instant ramen is a poor attempt at the real thing, it’s more likely that your first run-in with a proper bowl of this hot, steamy comfort food was sometime over the last decade, if at all.

And yet today in Omaha, real ramen, with its aromatic broth and fresh ingredients, is available at a handful of dedicated spots, with more on the way. A day for Jose Dionicio, chef and owner at Ika Ramen and Izakaya, begins and ends with the broth, which he says came about through years of trial and error. “In our case, ramen is not about rehydrating noodles,” Dionicio points out. “There’s a lot of time, effort, and tears going into making this. It’s a whole meal, something fulfilling. Soul filling, actually.”

Yoahi-Ya

Yoahi-Ya

Housed in what Dionicio calls “a little shack” at 63rd and Maple streets, Ika Ramen and Izakaya is the punctuation mark at the end of any night out in Benson. Slurping up your tonkotsu (rich pork broth) while other tables do the same, it’s evident this is a neighborhood eatery. No tablecloths, no pretension, no frills.

In addition to the main types of broths (chicken, pork, and vegetable) and a handful of appetizers, Dionicio and company serve up a few daily specials—a little spicy seafood with kimchi here, a few crispy chicken skins there—and that’s it.

Chef A.J. Swanda’s menu at Ugly Duck Ramen is even more finite: there’s just one type of ramen available every week, along with a robust vegetarian version, complemented by a small selection of appetizers and sides, and pastry chef Kate Anderson’s inventive doughnut holes (called dodos), which rotate flavors weekly. Haven’t heard of Ugly Duck? It doesn’t actually have its own location—yet. While Swanda would like to open a brick-and-mortar location in the future, his main locale over the past year was borrowed space at the popular bar-and-pub-grub spot Nite Owl, his ramen usually sold out within a few hours. Swanda plans to hold popup events in the near future as he works toward owning a storefront.

Of course, it’s not just soup that Omahans are after. Outside the nearby Scriptown Brewing Co., diners can indulge in their nut butter cravings with Peanut Butter Johnny’s. As a food truck offering about a half dozen sandwiches on the menu—from the Tin Can (almond butter, fig jam, goat cheese, honey and bacon) to your basic peanut butter and grape jelly—owner John Jelinek reports that business has been great.

Brother Sebastian's Steak House

Brother Sebastian’s Steak House

If a slightly more refined experience sounds appealing, down in the Old Market chef Paul Kulik has made a menu at Le Bouillon designed around the best processes of European cookery, in particular the Basque region of France. Diners with a hankering for cassoulet, rillettes, fresh oysters, and the like regularly fill the place.

Dolce

Dolce

But while Kulik would rather serve his interpretation of these classics than fiddle with by-the-book authenticity, he acknowledges that this level of specialization requires a higher degree of thought and determination than at a more generic restaurant—and he’s had experience in both settings. “The notion that Omaha wasn’t ‘ready’ for something was a very pervasive sentiment for a long time, and that’s something that had to be shattered,” Kulik asserts. “Omaha would never just be ‘ready’ for something. You have to present it in a persuasive manner. You have to make good things in an affordable way, in a pleasant setting. You have to win people over one at a time.”Omaha didn’t move from choice-of-vegetable-and-potato places to a hotbed of chef-driven adventures overnight. Dionicio explains the time was finally right last year to present his noodle-centric menu, but that earlier would have been premature. At his other spot, the Peruvian-inspired seafood restaurant Taita, he first introduced bowls of ramen as late-night fodder for service industry folk in 2012, and later on Sundays as a brunch item. Week by week and bowl by bowl, ramen gained ground among food enthusiasts, hungover hipsters, and everyone in between.

But as Brian O’Malley, chef instructor at the Metropolitan Community College Institute for Culinary Arts sees it, this development has historically run slower, citing the decades it took for Omaha to warm up to something like sushi. “For all of my childhood there were zero places to get sushi, and then in high school there was one, in the early 2000s there were two, and then eight, and now I lost count.” O’Malley credits quicker access to information with expediting the whole process—the world getting “smaller” through the Internet and diners having the option of doing their homework on certain types of cuisine.

And still, as a whole, we pander to nothing, especially not fleeting trends. “With new foods and new ideas, we’re open, but we’re slow to open,” O’Malley explains. “But once that embrace occurs—once we love something—we love it for real. That is a proud thing about being an Omaha diner.”

The Grey Plume

The Grey Plume

Collaboration Feeds Success

As the number and breadth of dining options in Omaha continues to expand year over year, the discussion runs deeper than just the sheer number and types of offerings. Generally speaking, Omaha’s leading chefs of today want everyone else to do well.

This sentiment runs deeper than one might expect. O’Malley describes it as a collaborative tension, one that spurs both innovation and craftsmanship. In this way, the creative culture borrows from that of Omaha’s music and art scenes; the sharing of ideas tends to benefit the final product in tangible and intangible ways. There’s also the stripped-down truth about a good, old-fashioned work ethic. Says O’Malley: “We have this super-heightened respect for hard work. Everyone is willing to support you when you bust your ass.”

Careful not to subscribe to rampant boostering that can foul up a creative scene, Omaha chefs have gotten really good at working together. Kulik asserts it has to do with the friendships cultivated over the past decades, often in slavishly small hot kitchens. Collaborative events help, too: everything from Emerging Terrain’s 2010 Harvest Dinner—a five-course meal prepared by 10 area chefs using ingredients from 40 local farms serving 500 diners—to regularly occurring pairing dinners and chef swaps. It’s common to see name-studded menus advertising the provenance of a particular ingredient: French Bulldog sausage, for example, or Culprit Cafe & Bakery bread.

Salt 88

Salt 88

For the Love of the Game

Omaha’s contemporary restaurants are remarkably more genuine than most. Where there’s a great dish, an approachable chef isn’t far behind. In a national climate that pushes franchised fast-casual concepts that don’t let you forget that you are dining inside of a concept, it is refreshing to feel connected to the people making your food and the story they’re trying to tell. Growth is done with caution, and for the most part, no one goes into this field to become rich. It’s much more heartfelt than profit; they’re intent on sharing a special something.

Plank Seafood Provisions

Plank Seafood Provisions

For Bryce Coulton of The French Bulldog, it’s using food as a way to experience something elsewhere, whether that’s your grandma’s smoked braunschweiger or a Thai summer sausage that takes you to the shores of Bangkok. For Maides, it’s growing up around kitchens, and watching his grandmother gather fresh vegetables from the garden to cook with.

At the core of this sincerity is a yearning for the uncomplicated, and the possibility for perfection. When Kulik and his crew make a menu, they first sit down and decide what it is they’re most excited about. Once they have that, the process turns to how they transfer that excitement to the dishes at hand. “If you want to get good at what you do,” advises Kulik, “you have to narrow your focus on the philosophy of the place.” These days, with menus that have mostly gotten over a rough case of identity crisis and executed in a positive environment for the right reasons, Omaha’s kitchens are headed in the right direction.

Mula Tacos

Mula Tacos

Making the Old New Again

November 5, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sherri and John Obermiller decided their new downtown condo reminded them too much of the suburbs.

They should know. The couple moved in 2011 from their five-bedroom, five-bathroom home in the white-picket-fence-lined neighborhoods off 180th St. and West Center Road to the eclectic, artsy downtown for a reason, and it wasn’t perfection and modernity.

Obermiller2“It was time to downsize and just get rid of stuff,” Sherri says. “Plus, this gave me an excuse not to do yard work anymore.”

The pair looked at five or six buildings before deciding the 902 Dodge Street condos were a natural fit for them. The building is located close enough to walk to yoga classes or sushi restaurants, but far enough from the bustle of the Old Market. “We don’t always like to be in the crowd, but we like to be near it,” Sherri says. “We enjoy being anonymous in a sea of people.”

An available condo on the fifth floor was too small and in need of a facelift, but the Obermillers saw its potential. Their first act as new owners? Asking their neighbor what amount of money it would take for him to move. Their new home instantly doubled in size.

To further construct their vision for the space, they enlisted the help of Stephanie Basham, principal designer and owner of Group One Interiors, and Don Stormberg, owner of Stormberg Construction. The couple rented and lived in a unit on the second floor of the building as Basham and Stormberg’s teams worked to renovate the condo to the Obermillers’ standards.

Obermiller3“It’s always challenging to work in a space that people are inhabiting during construction,” Basham says. “The Obermillers have a finely tuned sense of contemporary style and an appreciation for urban modernism. And to top that, John and Sherri value attention to detail, which is a dream for a designer.”

From using lime green as an accent color to matching the gray of the exposed concrete ceiling to the condo’s columns, the detailed design was inspired from the Obermillers’ travels to metropolises like New York City.

Obermiller4

To make the home feel larger, Basham took advantage of the high ceilings and crafted a floating translucent cloud above the kitchen island. The focal point of the home, the cloud creates a sense of separation between the kitchen and adjacent rooms without impeding the view. Local fabricators and installers used frosted acrylic to have the effect of tinted glass without the weight. This fixture is a personal favorite of the Obermillers.

“The cloud above and countertop below have the same steel lines, so they mirror one another,” Sherri says. “We strived for symmetry throughout our home.”

Following nearly a year of renovations, only the cherrywood cabinets in the kitchen remain in the now-2,400-square-foot condo.  An entire patio was removed; new floors and appliances were installed; iron-welded, artisan-crafted barn doors were mounted; and rooms were ornamented in furniture from as far away as Sweden. The result is a simple, contemporary design that’s entirely unique to the Obermillers.

Obermiller5

The Obermillers saw not only the potential of their condo but the value of the downtown area as well. While the CenturyLink Center was the major draw north of Dodge Street when the Obermillers first moved downtown, the area will soon be home to HDR’s high-rise headquarters and a collection of newly developed apartments, offices, and entertainment space.

“We are incredibly excited about this development and what’s next,” John says.

Obermiller6Embracing an urban lifestyle is a hot trend, yet the Obermillers aren’t concerned with following or setting trends. Instead, their new home serves as a space for them to reinvigorate their story together.

“We can walk to the trails by the pedestrian bridge or quickly go to the restaurants in the Old Market. It’s fun and incredible,” Sherri says. “It feels like we live in a much bigger city than what Omaha really is.”

When the Obermillers aren’t watching Nebraska sunsets melt behind the Woodman and First National from their building’s rooftop terrace, they enjoy a different view from their living room window. They look down onto the interstates weaving under and over themselves, roads looping and stretching in different directions. An image the Obermillers agree is beautiful. Just below the roads and between the urban sprawl of Omaha and Council Bluffs lies the river.

“We always thought at this point in our life we’d have a condo overlooking Lake Michigan,” John says. “Living happily next to the Missouri River in downtown Omaha? Well, that’s just the next
best thing.”

Obermiller1