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Rising Up

Midtown Sushi Favorite Comes Out From Hiding Following Its Recent Move

Minato Japanese Restaurant

Address:1013 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21201

More on Minato Japanese Restaurant.

Open Monday through Friday for lunch and daily for dinner.

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 6/20/2007

The good people of Minato moved their operation a few blocks north last month, relocating from its longtime under-the-radar home in the basement of the Park Plaza building into the old Belvedere Florist space. If the old place was a cool hideaway on the hottest days and a cozy refuge in winter, the new Minato, with new acid-green café chairs pulsating in the building-length windows fronting Charles Street, feels less content with obscurity. And on recent visits on both weeknights and weekends, Minato was doing brisker evening trade than it used to.

Those chairs and the celery-painted walls up front smartly contemporize the main dining room, a space of formal proportions. Not all design decisions have produced happy results. The room’s boldest statement, a suspended lighting fixture—a wavy-edged rectangle composed of patchwork squares in rainbow colors—feels less an enhancement than a disruption to the architecture. Set back near the kitchen, the L-shaped sushi bar (the display cases of which largely obscure the sushi chefs’ handiwork) puts patrons’ backs to the action, and its narrow dining ledge makes it not perform booze-bar duties so well.

Still, when the music begins to thump-a-thump in the late evening, the room, when it’s full, begins to resemble city living. Minato’s food, meanwhile, remains the satisfying and nourishing fare it has always been, although not all of it looks as pristine, as precisely positioned as it should in the new room. (The lighting fixture washes colors out, too.) What looked appropriately like home-cooking at the old Minato now looks wan or drab, a particular problem with Japanese cuisine, which depends so much on presentation to get its pleasure across. Now things feel conservative.

The menu has been somewhat revised, shorn of much but not all of its Vietnamese dishes, but is still divided evenly between offerings from the sushi bar and the kitchen—it’s this second group that’s coming off not so magically, although moderate pricing is in its great favor. Such meat-and-starch entrées as fried and slivered pork cutlet, tonkatsu ($11.50); grilled marinated pork over noodles ($9.95); and a tuna teriyaki dish ($13.95) are tasty, well-prepared—especially the strips of crispy fried pork—but they’re boring.

Big bowls of broth and noodles—such as beef pho ($8.95) and tampopo ramen ($10.50) in a spicy miso broth—are similarly monotonous but so sweatily hot and filling that their lack of pizazz and reluctance to say anything new matter less. Keeping things simple works well, too, with lightly floured and fried appetizers, particularly the kani karage ($7.95), pieces of soft-shell crab with crunchy sweetness, and the ika no karaage ($5.50), lovely morsels of calamari.

The sushi bar’s production remains as it was, steadfast and a few jots short of glamorous. Crispy specialty rolls, lovely with avocado, sweet with slivers of eel, are brought to the table in large black serving bowls that disallow full views into the rolls, subverting their visual appeal.

There is real and true affection felt between the veteran staff of Minato and its customers. People are pulling for Minato, and they should. But neither should they settle for nice when they could have beautiful.

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