Dayton Sushi Bar Reigns Supreme
By Tom Baker
On a recent visit to Akashi in Riverside, it dawned on me just how different dining experiences can be for different cultures. Here in the Midwest, we are more accustomed to informal dining, especially as the U.S. overall has been trending to a more casual style. However, I know that in Dayton and across the country there is a growing appreciation for the culinary arts, augmented by the explosion in popularity of superstar chefs. My first experience with this sort of culinary worship was the Japanese version of Iron Chef — a guest chef challenging one of three experts in their respective cuisine with only one hour to prove their prowess. Iron Chef moved to America, and in the notorious Morimoto/Bobby Flay challenge, Morimoto is offended as Flay, in true American form, jumps onto the table and his cutting board to celebrate. It’s this sort of difference that I noticed on my last visit to Akashi — a respect and reverence not shown, at least perhaps not noticed, in some restaurants, to the chefs and their art.
Akashi is different than other Japanese restaurants I’ve visited around Dayton. Many also offer Thai or Korean dishes, but Akashi focuses on a traditional Japanese menu with an impressive size and scope. Upon entering the modest dining room featuring a small sushi bar, you do feel a bit as though you’ve left Riverside. Japanese is the first language spoken, and the space is quiet, clean and friendly. Our first experience at Akashi was at dinner time, and the staff was accommodating and helpful. Donning traditional garb, they moved carefully around our table as they provided us warm towels for our hands and then delivered each course. We did notice, however, that they would stand almost at attention at various points in the dining room, monitoring our progress. It was almost off-putting, but perhaps this was a difference in service etiquette. I do suppose I’d rather have my server patiently watching rather than disappearing altogether. Even the sushi chefs stood stoic behind their station, never cracking a smile.
The dinner menu is expansive to say the least — appetizers, sushi, noodle dishes and many traditional items, accompanied by pictures, accumulate in a menu that is thirteen pages long. Akashi also offers an ample array of wines, sake, plum wine and beer, but there was no wine list offered, only a display near the front door. We decided to go with a soup dish, a noodle dish, a sushi roll and beer and plum wine to try to cover what little ground we could at one sitting. The Tempura Udon, served with the traditional thick noodles and tempura fried shrimp in a light broth, was welcome and warming, but the next time I would ask for the shrimp on the side, as the soggy breading fell away from the shrimp. We tried the Okinawa Yakisoba, a stir-fried noodle dish flavored with ginger and a sauce similar to Worcestershire, and garnished with dried seaweed. With vegetables that were notably absent other than the thin bits of carrot and cabbage, it was more appropriate as a side. Finally the spider roll, larger than most I’ve had in the past, was very good and artfully presented with its fried soft shell crab, avocado and asparagus. We both had miso soup and house salad with ginger dressing to start. Akashi’s ginger-orange dressing is fantastic, and by far the best I’ve had in recent memory. Dinner came to a total of $50 before gratuity, average for an evening of Japanese.
At lunch the atmosphere changes noticeably, and is more relaxed. A short time before closing, I was the only one in the restaurant aside from a man sitting at the sushi bar. I’m assuming he was also Japanese by the conversation that he and the sushi chefs carried on throughout lunch. The servers were more casual in both their approach and their attire, and overall the experience was more enjoyable. For lunch I chose the ubiquitous Bento Box with Saba (mackerel). The Bento Box is an everyday lunch presentation in Japan, often packed with a competitive and artistic pride by Japanese mothers for their children to take to school. The compartments of the boxes hold a wide variety of items, and in this case mine held seared mackerel, rice, house salad, potato croquette, shrimp and vegetable tempura, a noodle salad, and a slice of kiwi in the center. At just under $10 it’s a good value, and a better way to experience an array of items, from raw to cooked depending on the type of box you choose.
As I sat eating my lunch, watching the sushi chef and the gentleman at the bar conversing, I noticed something each time the chef handed over a dish. The gentleman receiving it did so with both hands, and bowed each time. I realize that traditions and etiquette differ, but seeing this interaction not only made the experience feel that much more authentic, it also reminded me of how a dining experience can be a gateway into learning about and appreciating both foods and cultures.
Akashi is located at 2020 Harshman Rd. in Riverside and is closed on Sundays. 937-233-8005.
Reach DCP food critic Tom Baker at TomBaker@DaytonCityPaper.com.