All-You-Can-Eat Japanese Joints
All-you-can-eat offerings from the land of the rising sun.
Aji Contemporary Japanese restaurant is the latest addition to the growing roster of ethnic eateries populating a stretch of Mainstreet in Hopkins. Superficially, this newest arrival scopes out to be just another sushi- and yaki-centric wannabe. Although the fundamentals are indeed of the “been there, seen that” persuasion, I ended up being surprised by the particulars.
Aji is essentially positioned as a value dining proposition that boasts a sleek and comfortable contemporary design with truly first-rate service. The main attraction is an all-you-can-eat sushi and salad buffet for $16.75 at dinner ($12.75 at lunch). The breadth of the offerings is commendably more ambitious than the tiresome vegetarian and roe-topped creations featured at many similar spots. It’s also noteworthy that the hardworking sushi chefs are front and center taking palpable pride in describing and discussing their wares. As for quality, it runs the gamut. My ultimate test of a straightforward sample of the otoro sushi scored C+ for taste and texture, while the highly recommended crunchy roll (an amalgam of tempura shrimp, cucumber, spicy mayonnaise, and assorted sprinklings on top) easily lived up to its hype.
Appetizers, for the most part, are unimaginative. They include the now ubiquitous edamame, a so-so version of fingerling-shaped (rather than classically butterflied) tempura shrimp paired with assorted deep-fried veggies and a serving of crispy skinned, but somewhat mushy, chicken- and vegetable-stuffed gyoza. What caught my attention were a couple of decidedly unconventional choices. One was hamachi kama. This infrequently offered, much prized, and somewhat grotesque looking delicacy is the neck (collar) of a yellowtail. Simply grilled and served with daikon, lemon, and dipping sauces, this meaty piece of fish was crispy on the outside and wonderfully moist and tender within. The other unique dish was a side order described as “Japanese pancake.” The base for this interesting dish is a combination of cabbage, mushroom, and onion. It’s topped with a crunchy, gingery slaw and bonito, or fish skin flakes, mingled with a choice of protein—in our case, chicken. While it’s not something for which I could develop a craving, it was tasty and certainly unique for a place such as this.
As we worked our way through the rest of our samplings, my mind kept focusing on the two menu anomalies. I somewhat jokingly inquired whether the “live” sea scallop chalked on the weekend special board was actually served in an animate state. The next thing I knew we were joined by a young chef named Tao Li who has spent the past several years apprenticing in several of the metro’s better Japanese restaurants and had been at Aji only a couple of weeks. He described his plan to slowly but surely introduce some less conventional choices and then treated us to a couple of samples. One was the scallop, an exquisitely prepared and handsomely presented arrangement of delicate mollusk slices that had been cut from the shell just minutes before, sided with the scallop’s tender cheeks, drizzled with a miso butter, and served with lemon-lime juices. It was swoon-worthy.
The other was an equally impressive tuna tataki made from bluefin belly and arranged with microgreens and some droplets of sriracha. The kid seems to know what he’s doing. While I might not rush back for the rest of the fixings, I’m quite likely to return and put myself in his hands. My short take on Aji is if you enjoy sushi, you’d be hard pressed to beat the price value. Otherwise, I’d give it another month or two and see what evolves.
When it comes to all-you-can-eat smorgasbords, there are a couple of new Asian-themed cafeterias in town that are packing in multicultural throngs with prices so modest (about $11 for adults) that even a Harvard MBA would be hard pressed to figure out how they can be making money at it. One is Teppanyaki Buffet and the other is Hibachi Buffet. Both are housed in cavernous buildings with so many steam tables and cooking stations that it’s disorienting. While the respective offerings aren’t identical, they’re so similar I wondered if the two places shared ownership. I was told they don’t. There’s not enough space in this column to make a dent at chronicling what’s available: Think of just about any westernized Chinese dish, from sweet and sour to stir-fried beef with broccoli; every conceivable seafood save lobster; plus all manner of comfort foods such as roast chicken, pizza, pot roast, sausage, a garden of salad bar fixings, and a bevy of sweet-tooth favorites. Sure, the quality of the ingredients tends to be less than prime, there’s an unhealthy abundance of fried fare, and the execution is all over the map, but if you pick and choose with care, it’s not at all difficult to cobble together an enjoyable, satisfying, and filling meal.
In terms of specialty items, both offer the same three. One is watery snow crab legs that are set out at roughly half-hour intervals and quickly snatched up in a grabfest. A second is a sushi bar. While the rice rolls won’t impress aficionados with either their ambition or craft, they do satisfy a base craving. The third is a hibachi cooking station. Simply grab a plate, pile it as high as you dare with the proffering of sliced meats, assorted vegetables, rice noodles, and even raw eggs, and hand the works over to the chef to stir-fry on the adjacent griddle. In contrast to similar Mongolian BBQ experiences where you can formulate your own flavorings, the challenge here is to try to communicate with the cooks about your sauce and seasoning preferences. It’s not easy, but even when I provided no guidance at all I ultimately enjoyed the taste of what ended up back on my plate. If for no other reason than to bulk up on this singular teppanyaki option, a visit to either of these buffets is well worth the bargain basement cost.
Where to Find Them
Aji Contemporary Japanese Restaurant: 712 Mainstreet, Hopkins, 952-358-3558, ajicj.com
Teppanyaki Buffet: 2216 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-728-3838
Hibachi Buffet: 111 E. Lake St., Mpls., 612-825-3099