Late one Friday we were seated for dinner in the central dining area of what seemed like a relatively quiet spot, Otaru Nippon Collection Japanese Restaurant and Lounge, located just off the Tollway. Coats off, drinks ordered, we settled in. Shortly after, we noticed the staff was not just tidying but removing tables around us, and we began to fear that we'd be the lone table in the middle of the floor. I asked our server if they might like us to move to one of the tall bistro tables bordering the sushi bar. Ever polite and apologetic, she said that might be a good idea as the DJ was setting up.
We moved, and no more than five minutes later, the already-dim lights were dimmed further and the mid-'90s radio hits to which we had been subjected were replaced with dance tracks and R&B remixes at approximately twice the volume. Maybe it was good music, but we had to shout to hear each other and our server. Then a man with a remote appeared, and a frenzy of red and green laser lights began spanning everything in the room.
Otaru had shed its kimono to become a night spot, but it won't shed its namesake, Otaru, Hokkaido, a small commuter town known for its tourism, its canal and some of the freshest sushi in Japan. Instead the Otaru in Addison seemed uncertain about what it wants to be: a restaurant or a nightclub—insisting on paying homage to its origins while going far beyond the traditional.
Maybe we should have recognized Otaru's schizophrenia from its décor, a white stuccoed cave nestled in the middle of a shopping park (which also houses Gloria's and Saffron House). The only things that read Nippon were the decorative items behind the sushi bar, classic scroll art and Akiko, a server who embodied all the hospitality of the most traditional sushi house workers.
Fortunately, the freshness of Otaru's fish hadn't suffered the same fate as its misguided lighting scheme. Otaru is, after all, owned by Dr. Fish, the local Japanese seafood distributor that began as a retail storefront and blew up into mega-wholesaler, due to demand from area Japanese sushi restaurants.
Hamachi, both in nigiri and negi hamachi maki (chopped with scallions, in a roll) forms, was exceptionally tender, buttery and smooth. Sushi staples salmon and tuna were strong contenders as well, each bite giving way with the firmness and flavor of fish that could've been caught that morning.
Otaru's maki better mirrored the non-traditional atmosphere—its rolls were more like standbys revamped. The New York roll, for instance, used a slice of apple where normally a cucumber would be solely responsible for crunch. The tartness and sweetness added a counterpoint to the salmon, avocado, rice and masago that was unexpected for such a common fruit. I momentarily felt silly for getting excited about a bit of good ol' red apple.
Decorative talents also varied among some of the showier rolls. The Green Hulk roll with its crunchy tempura shrimp core was a gorgeous snake gilded in avocado and studded with sinus-clearing crawfish. The richness of the avocado was balanced out by spice, and the colors of both made for a dynamic presentation, but it left us longing for a punched-up presence in the fish department.
Otaru has its traditional sushi down, and its fusion rolls aren't far behind, but we weren't shy about checking out its hot food and entrees...and found that menu to include some Korean favorites in addition to Japanese classics.
As far as appetizers go, I will never pass up an opportunity to order gyoza. The dumpling is one of my favorite memories of childhood, and Otaru does right by it, offering customers their choice of filling. Based on our server's recommendation, we tested out the chicken over our original choice of pork. We weren't disappointed.
Beef tataki was an elegant offering that could make a wonderful lunch if paired with a roll and some gyoza. The quickly seared slices of beef barely needed chewing. Its light coating of robust vinaigrette had hints of sesame, ginger and soy and literally made my mouth water from scent alone. There was absolutely no downside...unless you count that it was gone too soon.
For udon (thick, round noodles) fans out there, the Otaru menu actually refers to the samurai-style version as nabe yaki udon, which is traditionally broth-based. The stir-fried noodles, veg, chicken and assorted seafood (octopus, mussel, surf clam, fish cake and squid) in a very light sauce was more akin to yaki udon (which, for comparison's sake, is similar to yakisoba). The flavor of almost every piece of protein was truly impressive, though with the dim lighting, I had to go by taste alone in a sort of "What's This I'm Eating?" game. "Is that chicken? Nope, squid! OK, that's fish cake!" Only the surf clams were too tough for continued chewing and the mussel was so dry it flaked. But the squid was fork-tender and rivaled the best I've had.
My companion ordered the chicken teriyaki dinner bento box, and it was a traditional presentation in value as well as flavor. The meal arrived in the popular segmented box, with house salad, tempura veggies and shrimp, California roll, aforementioned teriyaki and requisite orange wedge. The teriyaki was sauced with restraint—a pleasant surprise. It was neither too salty nor too sweet—both of which can muck up a good teriyaki. The tempura was fair, with a nice blend of vegetables, but I just didn't take to the batter. It was too thick, when an ideal tempura would be more airy, just framing its subject.
The Korean sections of Otaru's menu features mostly classic favorites such as bulgogi, bibimbap, barbecue beef and galbi, and we decided to tuck into the Otaru dduk galbi, which is a diced and marinated Angus beef and rice cake dish served on a hot plate. The Otaru galbi is almost $20 (far more than a dinner bento). While it is ample in size and a fine representation of the savory, saucy Korean dish, it just wasn't worth the price.
Truth is, I'm enamored with Japanese food, but there's something about Otaru that stops me from returning...and, clearly, it's not because Addison isn't yet non-smoking.
As I looked at a beautiful metal menu featuring the Japanese characters for all manner of sushi, and watched the maneki neko ("lucky cat") beckon customers into the blue neon (the outskirts of an empty dining, er, dance floor) I found myself agreeing with the absurdly loud Lady Gaga song playing overhead. I was in some sort of bad romance, attracted by timeless Japanese food of fine quality, and yet I courted an annoying club scene where no one was even dancing.
It made me question the goals of Otaru. Did they think they had sushi in the bag (thanks to Dr. Fish) so they were going after drink dollars with a nightclub? Possibly. It might be better if, come DJ time, they had just shut down the kitchen, offered sushi only and never told their namesake. Because even if there's a sushi restaurant/dance bar in Otaru, Hokkaido, they would probably let me finish my hot meal before turning the place into a high-decibel jukebox—or at least they'd let me hear the staff yell their goodbyes instead of watching them pantomime their farewells amid the din of dance beats. Wait...maybe they were just krumping to Beyoncé.
Otaru Nippon Collection Japanese Restaurant and Lounge 5100 Belt Line Road, Suite 796, Addison, 972-866-8278. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday Saturday , 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday. $$$
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