Flavor: Japanese, with an emphasis on freshness
Ambiance: Attentive and friendly
Service: Cozy or tight, depending on your perspective
The job of a restaurant reviewer has its merits, to be sure. But anonymity – something that the job requires at times – can be a difficult thing to preserve in a city the size of Asheville.
I’ve tried to be as inconspicuous as possible while on the job, but sometimes, a well-meaning acquaintance will approach and start discussing my food writing. On one occasion, I stood in the doorway of an establishment that I was about to review, trying to subtly stare a friend into silence as he said – within earshot of the hostess – “You oughta review this place! The food’s great!”
On a recent work trip to Heiwa Shokudo, the diminutive Japanese restaurant on Lexington Avenue, I wondered if I might recognize anyone there.
I didn’t have to wonder for long: As my companion and I entered the door, we were greeted by one of the waitresses – whom I happened to have known for years. Trying to preserve some semblance of secrecy, I gestured to my companion, who was under the weather, and explained that he was in dire need of soup – so the natural choice was Heiwa. That’s right … nothing going on here but a couple of people wanting soup.
Having cleared that hurdle, we sat down, only to find ourselves sitting next to a rather exuberant friend. “So, you still writing about …” my friend began, too loudly for my comfort.
“No!” my companion and I stammered in unison, hoping to cut her off, though at that point any effort to remain anonymous seemed laughable. “I’m trying to remain incognito,” I quietly informed her.
Right on cue, our waitress approached and asked, “So, are you working or just eating?”
“Just eating,” I lied, feeling pretty ashamed of my dishonest ways.
At any rate, on to the food. First, we ordered the tuna tataki to share. The fish itself was good and fresh, with an excellent texture. I greatly appreciate the fact that Heiwa doesn’t use that frightening-looking, neon-pink tuna that often signals that the fish has been treated with carbon monoxide to preserve color. The tuna at Heiwa is usually a soft, but deep, natural red, though the tataki is generally a more faded hue – a reaction to the marinade, perhaps. It is high quality and cut well, with no floss-like ribbons of chewy fat. This dedication to providing fresh, wholesome, all-natural ingredients has kept me a fan for years.
To soothe his ailing respiratory system, my companion decided to order the Geisha, a giant bowl of udon noodles, bonito broth and oodles of fresh vegetables. The broth, he reported, was weak – but it’s hard to believe the taste buds of a person suffering from a chest cold. I didn’t have a chance to get a spoon into it before he’d spiked it with a generous dash of soy and a hefty dose of the spicy pepper mix.
I ordered the Hamachi Poki, a mildly spicy concoction of avocado, sliced peppers, raw hamachi (yellow tail) and onions in a soy-based sauce. The dish is best, perhaps, in the summer, as it is served cold, but any time of the year it’s hard to resist. The hamachi was startlingly cold, but fresh and firm, with a beautiful rosy blush to its flesh. I chose to add some warmth to my meal by ordering a bowl of miso. My companion, somehow unaware of the fact that his senses were dulled, once again dubbed the broth weak. It was not.
At this point, my lies caught up with me. I was on my third entrée request (the previous two having been shot down for reasons involving a busy weekend and depleted stock). The waitress, looking distraught as I began to order yet another nonexistent item, went to the kitchen and spilled the beans as to my identity.
What followed were two dishes made of toro (fatty tuna belly) that are not on the menu: toro with a spicy mango sauce, and toro with crispy fried slivers of garlic and a soy-based ginger sauce. Seems that there was just enough tuna belly in the back for one person, and the chef decided to make something special because, the waitress said, “he likes to do that sort of thing.” (Perhaps he would have done it for anybody.)
The dishes were quite good. Apparently, the new sushi chef, who once worked at the defunct downtown restaurant Akumi, is into fusion. Hence the delicious and spicy mango/tobiko sauce on my toro, and the oddities found on the special sushi menu, like almonds in one roll and maple syrup in another.
As for unbiased reviews, well, here’s your disclaimer: This isn’t one. My cover was blown from the word go, but it doesn’t really matter. I love Heiwa – always have. It’s simple, fresh and healthy, with a focus on organic and local ingredients, whenever possible. It’s what I’ve always lovingly dubbed “hippy Japanese.”
My only gripe is that it seems like menu items are too often unavailable, but that’s often a sign (especially in the early days of the week) that a restaurant orders small to reduce waste and maximize freshness. In other words, you’re not eating Thursday’s fish order on Tuesday.
Those who haven’t been to Heiwa in a while will notice that the sushi menu is expanded and that there are a few new items on the menu. But all the old favorites – the tuna spicy garlic, the salmon katsu, and the various noodle bowls that are good for what ails ya – are still there. Just make sure you’re feeling sociable, as the size of the place means that it’s likely you’ll (literally) be rubbing elbows with a few acquaintances – and they just might recognize you too.