Restaurant Reviews

Easy Sell

Ajiya manager and sushi chef Ray Lin stands behind the sushi bar and slaps a flounder down onto the cutting board. It's an ugly fish, like a mutant beetle that impels itself via belly flops, the kind of insect you might find under a rock or a pile of rotten boards. The creamy white fish has pinkish jaws that look like a pair of tiny tin snips. Lin clutches a large knife and begins carving slices out of the fish's body.

The funny thing about Lin is that he's more like a good shoe salesman than a chef. He's always trying to up-sell or lateral-sell or nudge you to try more. And it wouldn't be out of place for him to say "Can I interest you in another pair?" because Ajiya, like most sushi restaurants, serves its offerings in pairs. "Out of uni. How about giant clam?" he says after scanning our order card. At one point, he places two bowls in front of us. Both are filled with ice and in the center are small thick slices of hamachi (yellow tail). One cluster is slightly darker than the other. The more pale of the two was more subtle...OK, it was just about flavorless. The darker was smooth with a clean, nutty, almost buttery flavor.

Lin says one is day-old and the other is fresh. "Which do you like better?" The funny thing is, we both like the day-old fish better. Lin says it's because the fish needs to age to develop its flavors. It's almost mortifying to think of a fish aging. Wine, yes. Beef, maybe. But aging fish? There are just far too many crude detours to travel through with this idea.

I've never heard of heightening the flavor of fish through aging before, but if the rest of Ajiya's offerings are any indication, Lin must be right. Tako (octopus) is silky and tender with a subtle briny flavor, while the giant clam, with frayed edges that made it look like a flat oblong spider poised to pounce from its silk food sack, was chewy with a firm, briny flavor and not a hint of chalkiness.

One of the strangest items served here is the tobiko, the tiny flying-fish eggs poured into a seaweed-sheathed bundle of rice. The eggs were black instead of orange, and the little eggs glittered with ice crystals, which made it seem like you were eating a fish-egg slushy. On a subsequent visit the tobiko was orange and cool instead of frozen. But the uni (it was available this time) was too cold, locking up its smooth creamy flavor.

Ajiya is simply outfitted and washed in saturated colors instead of endless acres of blond wood panels found in too many sushi restaurants. High-backed wooden chairs around the tables are drenched in purple, teal, and red and mixed around the tables. The walls are red and screaming yellow. The only annoyance is the music, which instead of Japanese or perhaps jazz or classical, is an assortment of schmaltzy instrumental versions of pop songs from the likes of Steely Dan, Chicago, and the Monkees.

But it doesn't really detract from the food, at least not much. Except for a couple of stumbles, such as a tuna roll with faded, almost gray fish flesh, and a reversed California roll that was soggy, virtually every scrap of sushi and sashimi ranged from good to fantastic. A strip of mackerel, dotted with little clumps of micro slices of scallion and a bright red dab of pepper sauce, was exquisitely smooth and alluringly strong. Spider roll, battered and fried soft-shell crab bound into a roll of rice and seaweed and sliced, retained its crispness and flavor throughout the length of the roll.

I'm not much for tamago, the sweetish egg custard strapped to a rice pad with a strip of seaweed, but this was delicious with a moist, firm texture and a clean sweetness.

Ajiya has other offerings besides sushi, including grilled meats and tempura. Asparagus tempura was crisp and relatively oil free, but a little shy on flavor. Calamari tempura, cupped body sections dusted with a peppery spice mix and placed on a piece of folded waxed paper atop a square black plate, was delicious.

Kushiyaki chicken, a series of skewered chicken scraps with bell pepper, was mostly a collection of parched chicken, but a special little creation tossed our way by Lin--lobster wontons floating in a milky sauce made from pureed edamame and ponzu--was astounding. The crisp wonton was rich in flavor while the sauce had an alluring savoriness, an earthy foil to the briny sea creature.

Owned by John Cheng, who operates Jasmine Chinese restaurant in Addison, Ajiya is in many ways a remarkable effort, one that may be cloned in Highland Park Village within a year.

Just be leery of Lin. Because when you're not looking, he may try to double your clams or sell you a volcano.

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Mark Stuertz
Contact: Mark Stuertz