Sushi fares best at a North Baltimore Japanese restaurant
"You want to sit at the bar? Watch the chefs make sushi?" asks the hostess at Sushi Hana. No, my companions shake their heads, we want to talk. And so our hostess ushers us around the corner, past full tables and glass shelves filled with paper fans and figurines, to a private table made more private by shoji sliding doors whose translucent rice paper panels could have blocked out the rest of the restaurant had we closed them completely. If you didn't know we were sitting there, you could easily have passed us by.
The same can be said for Sushi Hana itself. Located on the lower level of the Lake Falls Village Shopping Center, this second outpost of the popular Towson restaurant is invisible from Falls Road, but that doesn't stop folks from filling the dining room to overflow, even on a Monday night. Perhaps this is because so few restaurants in Baltimore are open on Mondays or because this area, a sort of no-man's restaurant land north of Mount Washington and well south of Ruxton and Towson, offers limited dining options. Or perhaps it's because Sushi Hana offers kind service and straightforward Japanese-style food that won't challenge an American palate.
Sushi Hana's menu is comprised of familiar dishes one comes to expect at local Japanese restaurants: tempura and teriyaki, miso soup and gyoza, and sushi and sashimi, the latter put together with a careful hand at the aforementioned sushi bar. There is a modest beer and wine list, as well. And while nothing we ate at Sushi Hana was unpleasant or stale or poorly executed, nothing wowed with originality either.
Wasabi shu mai ($4.95) arrived piping hot with an appropriate horseradish burn, though it didn't clear our nasal cavities like some versions have. Four pieces of sushi--the somewhat usual suspects of a sweet, giant shrimp, whitefish, salmon, and tuna--part of a combination platter with beef teriyaki ($19.95), were fresh and clean-tasting, definitely what you want sushi to be.
Sushi Hana's list of maki sushi is so large that the restaurant provides an additional sheet to explain the nuances among them. Alas, this is not available in the take-out menu or online, where you'll need to rack your brain to remember the difference between a rainbow roll and a rock 'n' roll. But the list seems more complicated than it is; if you look closely, many of the rolls are made from the same ingredients--tuna, salmon, avocado--just in different combinations (raw, cooked, inside the roll, sliced thinly atop). There are also plenty of non-traditional rolls for those who want cream cheese (the Philadelphia roll) or apples (the New York roll) in their sushi, though I'm not sure why you would. We found the spicy crazy eel roll ($11.95) preferable, though the spicy tuna mixture inside the roll was a bit mushy.
After ordering a variety of just OK cooked dishes--from a very bland nabe yaki udon ($13.95), a soup filled with thick, slippery noodles, chicken, broccoli, and a baton of tempura-ed shrimp, all topped with a fried egg; to a plate full of ton katsu ($13.95), a greaseless but dry deep-fried pork cutlet served with a piquant sauce; to the thin steak portion of the beef teriyaki combination--we wondered if we had mis-ordered, that sushi was the reason folks come here. "No," said our server, when we asked her. "Lots of people order kitchen meals." And observing the trays of food passing by our table, this seemed to be the case. If I were to return, however, I think I'd stick to sushi and sashimi.
Still, it's hard to dismiss a restaurant so patronized by the community and where the staff tries so hard, checking back continuously throughout the meal to make sure everything is alright, even defending a diner when he is teasingly called a crazy eel by another diner. By 9 p.m., while the last of the evening's customers trickled out, the staff took their rightful break, sitting down to plates of chicken, hardboiled eggs, and stir-fried rice, refueling in order to tackle the next rush tomorrow.