Not your average mall sushi
Daikanyama is high-end delight
Women are perusing creams for crow’s feet, pore shrinkers, and lash lengtheners, potions that promise complexion perfection. They wear shopping bags stacked on their arms like bangles. Brows furrowed, they frown into lighted mirrors as they apply unguents. This quest for beauty is stressing them out. Perhaps a visit to the restaurant at the end of the aisle is in order.
Daikanyama is located inside Bloomingdale’s, next to the cosmetics department. (If you have fragrance allergies, or shopping allergies, there’s a separate entrance from the parking lot.) The Japanese restaurant, named for a fashionable neighborhood in Tokyo, is as good as any spa. Green tea delivers antioxidants. Fat coral slabs of raw salmon melt on the tongue, administering omega-3 fatty acids. The atmosphere soothes, with water walls and light wood and printed panels of Japanese fabric.
This is the second restaurant for partner Judy Chow, who opened the first Daikanyama in Lexington in 2007. She followed it with the Newton branch in October, a magnet for ladies who lunch (and the occasional Japanese ballplayer). The menu is vast and ranges from pristine sashimi to elaborate sushi rolls to noodles and other cooked dishes.
The best dishes come in small portions, displayed on a variety of elegant ceramics. This feels like eating in Japan, even when the dish is something called Cajun tuna tataki. (Seared tuna edged lightly with spices, it’s not as strange as it sounds.) At a time when that country is very much on people’s minds, savoring the taste and pure prettiness of buttery cod broiled in sweet miso or a daily special from the sushi bar feels bittersweet. It’s wabi sabi with wasabi.
Those specials are the place to begin, created by sushi chef Raymond Chen. They showcase whatever fish has just come in, arranged beautifully and set off with simple flavors. The thinnest petals of sashimi may be laid out like a flower on the plate. The freshest uni is served in its spiny shell. Raw Maine shrimp are creamy and sweet on the tongue.
Sashimi here is skillfully cut, and simple nigiri satisfy. The rice is as important as the fish; if it doesn’t catch your attention with its perfection here, it also isn’t cold or hard as is too common at American sushi bars. There are several versions of pressed sushi, molded in a box rather than the hand, such as one featuring salmon, microgreens, and mango.
Chen also serves up a roster of creative rolls, and when I say “creative’’ in talking about maki, I usually mean “silly and pointless.’’ Who can taste the fish in a blizzard of crunchy tempura bits and cream cheese and spicy mayonnaise? A creature gave its life to wind up in something called a Godzilla Roll? But although the nuance of individual flavors may sometimes be lost in Daikanyama’s creations, they are not silly or pointless. They offer delicious synthesis, even in their most gimmicky-sounding iterations. The Sunny Maki combines pumpkin tempura, avocado, and spicy mayonnaise with a yuzu-based sauce, the whole thing topped with individual raspberries. How is it possible that these flavors work in tandem? The tart-sweet raspberries, rich avocado, crisp tempura, and note of heat somehow come together.
The Norris Roll forgoes seaweed in favor of soybean skin, pleasantly chewy, wrapped around salmon, avocado, and tobiko. Crispy Shrimp Maki looks like a holiday, with its red roe and green cucumber rolled together with tuna and tempura crumbs, then topped with shrimp. It’s all about proportion, each element in balance. And for uber-crispiness, there’s the Spicy Kaki Fry Maki, deep-fried oysters in a roll with cucumber and scallions.
Daikanyama does deep-frying proud. Chef Daisuke Shimizu also serves those fried oysters straight up, and they’re a pleasure. And the best entree from the kitchen may be katsu, Japan’s ubiquitous breaded chicken or pork cutlets, served with a thick Worcestershire sauce. Daikanyama’s katsu comes with rice, so-so miso soup (strangely, it contains carrots), and a salad with that delicious pinkish, gingery dressing you only find in Japanese restaurants. Also ubiquitous, and often boring, are gyoza, but here the dumplings are notable and worth ordering. Filled with pork, the skins are unusually thin and tender.
Also on the menu is ochazuke, a dish of rice, dashi, and various toppings. It’s total comfort food, not something you often see in Boston. (I’ve spotted it at Shiki in Brookline, too.) A tempura version with scallops and vegetables is delicate and warming.
But many hot dishes here are unremarkable. Udon, for instance, is underseasoned; the savory custard called chawan mushi is bland; grilled lamb chops one night are tough.
For dessert, you’ll find tempura ice cream, as Japanese as fried ice cream is Mexican. It’s pleasing in its way, green tea and red bean flavors enclosed in a thin shell. Tofu cheesecake is a more interesting creation, light and earthy. Fruit marinated in plum wine sauce offers a simple and seasonal ending to the meal. To drink, Daikanyama stocks a good selection of sake, as well as shochu made from barley or buckwheat, Echigo beer for those who want something with more character than Kirin or Sapporo, and ramune, a sweet soft drink often found at festivals in Japan. Midday, a special tea menu offers sweet snacks.
Daikanyama’s prices are on the high side, which could be a liability for a place located so close to the tiny, excellent Chestnut Hill sushi bar Oishii. It’s more apt to attract the post-mall crowd than to be a destination in its own right. But the sushi here gives Oishii’s a run for its money, and there are a heck of a lot more seats. It’s an oasis in the middle of the mall.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.