Hana Japanese Bistro in Louisville is all-inclusive
Hana Japanese Bistro is the full package — complete with instructions.
Every meal at this six-month-old spot in Louisville starts with warm towels and complimentary bowls of miso soup (a little dish of pickled vegetables or edamame often finds its way to your table, too). And on my most recent visit, each dish came with a lesson plan. "Eat the hand rolls first," our server advised as she dropped off a tray of sushi that included several spicy tuna hand rolls. "They get soggy if you let them sit." We followed orders, and so the seaweed cones that held vinegared rice and tuna coated with spicy mayonnaise were light and crispy rather than chewy.
The nabe mono beef sukiyaki hot pot came with this command: "Dump the bowl of rice in and mix well." That was good advice; the rice added heft to the sweet, bubbling broth already bobbing with bits of steak, fish cakes, scallions and glassy noodles.
And the server even called in reinforcements — the chef — when she delivered my zaru soba, since this traditional dish of cold buckwheat noodles came with a half-dozen accoutrements. First, I was to dump a raw quail egg, minced daikon radish, flying-fish roe and wasabi into the side of tsuyu, a sort of sweetened soy sauce. "Not so much wasabi!" cried the chef, wide-eyed, as I plunked a tablespoon into the mix. "Use your chopstick! Get some of it out!" I obeyed, then stirred the mixture until it was a uniform caramel color. Next, I was to grab a clump of noodles from the nori-dusted pile on the bamboo mat, drop them in the dipping sauce, give the noodles a good swirl, and then eat — holding the bowl of sauce under my chin so that I didn't drip all over the table.
Slide show: In the kitchen at Hana Japanese Bistro
They watched in anticipation as I took my first bite, then smiled delightedly as I nodded my appreciation, mouth full.
After they bowed out, leaving us to our feast, I immediately added more wasabi to the tsuyu and then ate greedily, barely letting my companions near the dish. I hadn't wanted to spoil the fun while the chef and server coached me through the process, but I've had zaru soba before. In fact, it's one of my favorite dishes, although I hadn't found a worthwhile version in the Denver area. Until this one. That nest of springy noodles, enlivened by the sweet-savory tsuyu spiked with a tear-inducing hit of wasabi, was simple and satisfying — much like Hana itself.
Hana's owner, Eric Chong, is a native of Malaysia, but he spent five years as a kitchen apprentice in Japan before moving to the States fifteen years ago. He wound up a partner in Hana Sushi, a restaurant in Longmont, and when he decided to open a place all his own, he found this spot in a Louisville strip mall. He remodeled the space with a Japanese tea garden in mind, creating a main dining room with tables in the center, a sushi counter at one side, and light wooden booths around the edges; tucked in a corner near the entrance are low tables with floor seating. The decor is sparse, but thoughtful: Yellow glass lamps hang above the tables, a few framed Japanese scrolls and other pieces of art adorn the walls, and potted orchids give the place life.
The menu is much more lavish. In addition to a long list of sushi and rolls, there are many other Japanese offerings, everything from agedashi tofu and baked mussels to donburi rice bowls to nabe mono hot pots to ramen, udon and soba. On my first visit, I'd concentrated on the sushi, because the promise of excellent raw fish is what had sent me to Louisville in the first place. Chong, who acts as Hana's sushi chef, is careful with his sources, painstaking with his preparations and generous with his servings. I'd stuffed myself with decadent strips of fatty salmon draped over rice; breathtakingly cold and fresh uni; fat, firm cubes of ruby red tuna and flying-fish roe that popped across my tongue. But I'd also seen that Hana served ramen, so I knew I'd be back soon.
And I was, this time with a group. We'd just finished the soup and were nursing a round of Ichiban beers when our appetizers arrived. I eagerly stabbed a chopstick into the agedashi tofu, a gelatinous brick of soybean curd, silky as custard, sheathed in a light, crispy skin, pooled with a little vinegar and topped with a dab of nori and daikon radish. I could have eaten an entree-sized portion, but instead moved on to gyoza, housemade pan-fried dumplings packed with pungent pork. "Dip them in the hot sauce first," our server advised. "Then in the other sauce," which was a tart, salty combination of soy sauce and vinegar. Gyoza are typically steamed after one side is crisped, but I suspect that Hana had skipped this step — or at least shortened it. The wrappers were crackly and airy all over, as if they'd been thoroughly fried, though some chew remained; with the suggested double dip of sauce, they worked just fine. And an order of baked mussels came not just with instructions, but also a warning: Pry the mollusks loose with a chopstick before tipping them into our mouths — and be careful, since the shellfish had just come out of the broiler. The mussels had been covered with a layer of tangy Japanese mayonnaise before they were baked, and the results were delicious — if I didn't think about my dislike of mayo too much.
Finally, the main event: Our server arrived with a brimming bowl of ramen and, uncharacteristically, no instructions. But this dish spoke for itself. Hana makes four renditions of a shoyu-style ramen, which has a light, clear broth. I prefer the heftier, pork-fat-laced broths, but made up for their absence by ordering the pork ramen. Darkened by soy sauce, the broth was peppery with the Japanese spice blend shichimi togarashi (more came on the side), and slightly tough strips of pork loin, fish cakes, ribbons of crab, slices of scallions and seaweed all floated above a mass of curly, chewy noodles. Shoyu isn't my favorite style, but Hana's ramen was still a well-done bowl — and a rare find in this area.
"Next time, try soba," our server recommended as she cleared the empty dishes away.
And I did. Because this restaurant is the complete package.
Slide show: In the kitchen at Hana Japanese Bistro
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