Photos by Caitlin Abrams
When Fuji Ya closed in downtown St. Paul last winter, the space fell into the hands of Red Lantern Sushi. For Red Lantern owner Wei Ming Wang, it was a homecoming of sorts. Wang’s story begins in his native Kobe, Japan. When he was young, his entire extended family moved to San Francisco and opened a restaurant. Sound like a common tale? It was, so much so that the family uprooted once more—this time for a place that didn’t already have a bunch of Japanese immigrants opening restaurants: Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
Venturing out on his own, Wang joined the Fuji Ya fold, becoming part owner and head chef at the St. Paul location. Things were great for years, until they weren’t, and Wang left to open his first solo spot, Red Lantern Sushi in White Bear Lake. The place gained a rabid following in WBL, and our own Peter Lilienthal raved about its ultra-fresh fish, handwritten menus, and cheeky, independent nature. In a sea of strip-mall sushi with giant rolls packed with cream cheese and lame fish, Red Lantern is an island of happy reverence for the art of sushi. And now we have its sister spot, and it seems all has come full circle.
Manning the sushi bar at the new location is Jordan Wolterstorff, a lop-haired Wisco kid who grew up outside of Madison on a farm. He knows more about Japanese eating and culture than your average gaijin, thanks in part to his own intense drive (he’s studied the ways of raw fish both here and all over Japan) and Wang’s calm tutelage. Wolterstorff may look like an anime-loving skateboarder, but he has a focused eye for quality, and respect for tradition and simplicity. He’s a bit of a Zen warrior with a rowdy edge, which makes sitting as his sushi counter quite an event.
And what about that? You can expect well-cut, fresh sashimi and nigiri of a respectable size. You’ll find your usual salmon and tuna, but also the fatty toro cuts and a few surprises. Ask Wolterstorff about the seasonal white fish selection and you’ll get a full description of the fish and its habits. Even if you’re not a fan of eel, try the buttered unagi, which Wolterstorff says is a big trend in Japan right now. It features a blob of high-fat butter melting over the top, which brings out an earthy sweetness in the bite. Suddenly, I like unagi. Another winning bet is to surrender to the sashimi platter and let the chefs walk you through what’s fresh; it’s usually a pretty well-rounded plate of deftly cut fish.
Not that rolls aren’t also a good time. In fact, that’s where Red Lantern’s chefs play hard. The Pinky roll with spicy tuna is topped with crab, and has a playful balance of herbal shiso leaf (with a bit of a minty flavor) and bright, citrusy yuzu that zips it straight up to 11. The Margarita roll is all rock ’n’ roll, with crisp shrimp packed with Serrano chilies and avocado, and topped with tuna, a thin slice of lime, and a dousing of tequila syrup and crushed salt. But it’s the Torch roll that I keep wanting. Tempura asparagus and spicy salmon are jammed with sprouts then topped with yellowtail that’s dressed with a little spicy sambal aioli and a dusting of togarashi. Tableside, they briefly hit the roll with a kitchen torch, long enough to caramelize the aioli with the togarashi, giving the whole thing a punch of smoky, sweet, spicy goodness.
As for the noodles, the pork ramen is right on—a big, earthy bowl of warming pork and shoyu broth as golden as Pikachu (Pokémon might be on the screen behind the counter). The pork is salty and fatty in the right ways, and the noodles are perfectly dense and chewy. The kimchi version adds a beautiful funk to the bowl, and the drunken ramen features a shot of tequila, which incorporates so well you forget it’s there.
When a new owner slips into the bones of an old spot, there’s the chance for misperception: Sushi was here, sushi is here again, yawn. But if you so choose to let your gaze pass Red Lantern’s door, you’ll be missing some unique, authentic, creative Japanese eating as so delivered by brash new ambassadors who are more than excited to bring it. 465 Wabasha Ave., St. Paul, redlanternsushi.com