The server unceremoniously dropped the Chef’s Omakase Sushi assortment on the table and walked away, leaving diners to play a guessing game that wasn’t much fun or fair, considering that “omakase” means “chef’s choice.” Some of the pieces, such as salmon, shrimp and tuna, were obvious and easy to identify. Others were not, including odd pink triangular chunks that might have been albacore. Either way, they were squishy and ragged.
On a later visit, an order of sea urchin roe nigiri came atop rice beds wrapped in nori in a messy fashion that left them vague, asymmetrical ovals. The uni looked too wet, and was composed of dull, orange-tan bits and pieces that carried a dank, slightly bitter undertone.
A small mom-and-pop-style Japanese restaurant in the Montrose sounds like a wonderful idea. Akamaru is next to Boheme Cafe & Wine Bar and across from Cuchara and the Fairview location of Max’s Wine Dive. It would be so much fun for it to be a little-known hideaway with a friendly owner who takes great pride in his meticulously cut fresh fish.
That, unfortunately, is not what is going on at Akamaru. The owner stays behind the counter the whole night and seems to have no interest in getting to know his customers. Going up to the sushi bar to ask about the types of fish on display earns the shortest answers possible. “What’s that?” “Albacore.” “How about that one?” “Bonito.”
That’s one of the more minor issues at Akamaru. Substantial problems span the entire operation. Service, communication and food all need improvement. There just aren’t many good things to say about the place right now.
The word “omakase” means “I leave it up to you” and is derived from the word “makaseru,” which means “to entrust.” Trust is important in Japanese restaurants that specialize in sushi and sashimi. If all the food at a restaurant is fully cooked, there’s less to worry about. But when raw fish is involved, diners need to believe they’re in good hands. The raggedy appearance of the fish at Akamaru doesn’t inspire confidence.
Most disturbing of all were the weird holes and separations between layers that marred nearly all the fish slices. The whole platter was so bad and of such poor quality that on different visits with different diners, about half of it went uneaten each time.
We asked Sushi Club of Houston President Carl Rosa to take a look at photos of the nigiri that were taken during the visits. Rosa has been taking groups on tours of Japan, arranging group visits to Houston Japanese restaurants and teaching sushi classes since 2006. The club now has more than 15,000 registered members.
Rosa was not told the name of the restaurant, but as soon as he saw the photos, he immediately guessed where they’d been taken. (He has dined at Akamaru on his own.) “The moment I detected the separation in the fish, I instantly knew the restaurant,” he wrote. “To me, it’s a hallmark of a particular combination of delicate cuts and too much pressure.”
Referring to a photo of hamachi (yellowtail) nigiri, he explained the cause of the separation between the layers of fish. “The fish was not cut across the grain. On the upper loin, you have to check and determine certain parts of the grain before cutting. If you don’t, you may have a cut that will be extremely delicate and will separate if you apply too much pressure when forming the nigiri. The fish seems to be falling apart, and it is an unattractive look.”
On that unattractive uni, Rosa explained that a lower grade was used, which explained the dull color and why much of it was in bits and pieces. He wrote, “The highest grade is a bright yellow/gold (Grade A) with a firm texture and somewhat sweet. Grade B uni is a more muted yellow and has a softer texture and is less sweet, while Grade C uni is referred to as ‘vana’ and is often the parts left over from uni that has broken apart during processing or handling. The uni provided to you was either B or C — certainly not A. The uni also appears to be sloppily made, lacking structure and appearing ‘mushy.’”
Worse than the fish, though, is the rice. The word “sushi” means rice seasoned with vinegar that comes with a garnish, whether fish, vegetables, eggs or pickles. The dish is not named for the fish — it’s named for the rice. Japanese chefs usually take great pride in the quality of their rice. In fact, Rosa says, traditional sushi chefs spend years mastering the rice long before they begin to handle the fish. That’s how important it is.
Akamaru’s rice on the first visit was nothing to be proud of. It was wet, loose and apt to fall apart and stick to the fingers, even with gentle handling. On a subsequent visit, it was firmer and held together better, but the beds of rice still appeared indented and lumpy, as if little care had been taken with them.
Rosa explained why the rice balls lacked integrity. “The rice seems to be long-grained (or medium, at best). Ideally, most sushi chefs choose medium- to small-grain rice like Tamanishiki or Tamaki Gold. The rice seems to have been poorly cleaned and undercooked. It appears mushy. ‘Dirty’ and undercooked rice will not allow the rice to have the proper taste, nor will it hold together.”
With some of the nigiri, there was an almost-comical mismatch between the shape and size of the fish slice and the rice ball. Triangular pieces of hamachi overlaid rectangular blocks of rice. A slice of salmon nearly half an inch thick dwarfed a tiny lump of rice.
Akamaru’s Facebook page and its listing on Google both indicated it would be open for lunch on Fridays. We arrived and found a darkened restaurant and locked doors. There are no hours posted on the door, either.
On a later visit when it was actually open, a server was nonchalant when asked why Akamaru had been closed, and showed not a care about the wasted trip. “Yeah, we’re only doing lunch Tuesday through Thursday. Friday lunch was slow for us,” he said, then walked off.
Apparently, not even the servers know what the hours are. We returned at lunchtime on a Tuesday to ask about the hours in person since no one was picking up the phone. Once again, the restaurant was unexpectedly closed. (We’ve not included the lunch hours in the restaurant information at the bottom of this review since there’s no guarantee that readers can dine at Akamaru during that time.)
During a dinner visit, there was only one overwhelmed server, who ran around trying take care of 16 people. Water was never served. The teapot ran dry and stayed that way until we asked for more. An appetizer order was put in early on, along with that first pot of tea, but it was 20 minutes before the server could be grabbed to place an entrée order and request a tea refill and some water. There were no dishes brought for mixing soy sauce and wasabi.
When there’s only one server to take care of 16 diners, that’s a management problem. No one seems to be actually doing any managing, though.
There was, fortunately, one dish at Akamaru that the whole group actually loved: teriyaki-marinated pork ribs with wonderful charred spots and flavor that balanced perfectly between salty and sweet. The meat pulled tenderly off the bone with a bite but held together. Roasted baby carrots, zucchini and tomato slices were welcome and surprising accompaniments.
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Going with cooked dishes doesn’t increase the odds that much, though. Breaking through the brown, fried exteriors of an order of takoyaki, or “octopus balls,” revealed centers of thick, gluey, undercooked batter. Rosa says that takoyaki is a typical Japanese street food made of a wheat-flour-based batter and cooked in a special pan. Upon review of the photos of what we received, he agreed that they “completely missed the mark” and that “gummy and ‘liquidy’ is not the goal.”
Akamaru does not have a liquor license, so it’s BYOB. If you still want to visit even after reading this review, take advantage of that option. You’re going to want a drink.
315 Fairview, 832-742-5503. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 5 to 11 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
Saba nigiri, three pieces $8
Salmon nigiri, three pieces $8
Sea urchin nigiri, three pieces $10
Hamachi, three pieces $12
Pork ribs $14
Soft-shell crab (single) $15
Chef’s Omakase Sushi assortment $42
Hot tea $2