Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Osaka Sushi Grill

38 Gravois Station
House Springs, Mo.
On The Web

We heard about this place on social media, on a Jefferson County Missouri general information feed.
The question asked by the moderator was "Favorite place to get Crab Rangoon from?"
(Struggling to avoid smugly calling out the stranded preposition)
The discussion was lively, as it always is on such hot topics of personal preference. There seemed to be several passionate, probably alcohol fueled opinions. One place came up a few times, one we'd not heard of. Angel looked up the menu and showed it to me. "It looks different." she angrily and resolutely sighed. (actually I can never seem to guess Angel's emotions accurately, she may in fact have been pleased.)
We resolved to got there at the first opportunity.
Recall that recently I have been whining about getting tired of Chinese places, the food was all starting to taste alike, and it seemed muddy and almost off-putting. But this place by name and menu was definitively not just another Chinese themed restaurant, it was Japanese and yes there is a difference.
One word on the menu caught my eye and launched a flood of ancient memories.
Gyoza. (ギョーザ, ギョウザ)
I can recall it now, like it was just yesterday. . .
Back in the 80's I was stationed at Misawa Air Base on the northern tip of the largest (Honshu) of that country's many islands. For three years.
That's a long time to be anywhere, so yeah, I explored a little, tried a few things more than the average tourist. Admittedly and regrettably I didn't take full opportunity of the time I spent there. I explored tried and tasted far less than I could have.
Occasionally one of my bosses, Harry, would head off base before lunchtime and bring back a party platter of gyoza. These are basically pot stickers like you find in other Asian cuisine, but with two notable differences, more on this later.
I tried other local foods while I was there, of course. I could never acquire a tasted for two things though, sticky rice used for sushi and any form of raw fish. I tried, in Japan, but sorry, no.
I also tried sake in an unofficial and rather unceremonious ceremony called a sake circle. Basically a bunch of the local fellows that worked for NEC, the national phone company, and who we GI's worked closely with, being a communications squadron and all. The sake was heated in a battered electric aluminum percolator until it was the temperature of hot tea. Sake is terrible, unless you drink it this way, then it slides down your throat like butter. About three shots in, you're lucky if you can stand up again. I was seldom lucky.
Good times. . .  But I digress.
The Place:
House Springs is in the north central part of Jefferson County, the bulk of it sits along Highway 30 (Gravois Road in St. Louis) It was one of the earlier settlements in the county, named after one of those early pioneers, Adam House. Mr. House was notably slaughtered by indigenous Americans  of the Osage tribe along a creek, House's Springs, in 1800.
We don''t get there often as the connections over to 30 from our house are scary curvy and narrow. We took the scenic and scary curvy route this time, Hillsboro - House Springs road because. . . well it's pretty obvious isn't it?
We found it easily enough, it's not a huge place and there are only a few shopping centers. Greater House Springs boast about 14,000 people, but that covers a lot of unincorporated, rural land around it.
"Osaka" (large hill or slope) is part of Japan's second largest metropolitan area, about 250 miles east of Tokyo, also on Honshu.
Walking in, we were pleased, it was quite modern and tidy, very much in the tradition and style of the
Japanese. Dark green textured wallpaper, thick lacquered wood table tops, dark ceramic tiles. Traditional Japanese three string shamisen music played lightly in the background. As is traditional with sushi places, the prep area was brightly lit and fully visible to the diners. Sushi making is a very high precision art steeped as much in tradition as cuisine. A good sushi chef prides himself on his skills and is confident putting those skills on display.
There were only a couple of other people there at the time, making the whole experience seem more intimate and personal.
Shortly, a cheerful and welcoming young lady stopped at our table and asked about drinks. We kept it simple, tea, Angel sweet, me, not sweet.
The menus looked familiar, we'd read through it on line.
The Food:
Angel had been interested in the bento boxes. Bento, roughly translated 'convenience', is a traditional, single portion meal containing a few different, segregated foods served most often in compartmentalized box-plates, similar, but of much better quality than American TV dinners. In Japan this is a popular way to lunch, either made at home, or picked up or delivered from a restaurant. I had a yen for some yakisoba, which along with, another Japanese dish, yakimeshi, I had acquired a taste for in Japan. Chinese restaurants serve very similar dishes. Yaki means grilled, or fried. Meshi is a word for rice. Soba is literally 'buckwheat', but informally, noodles. So yakisoba = fried noodles, yakimeshi = fried rice. Some Chinese places come close to that which I recall, but it has been so long now, I don't know if I can recall the actual taste anymore, just that I could eat a lot of either.
However, indecision got the better of me. They had a combo platter, the bento box. They came with steamed rice, but for $1 U.S. or roughly 115 Yen more, you could get fried rice. It also included two Rangoons, three small California rolls and two gyoza.
Kazumi talked Angel into an appetizer. Sushi is a specialty of the place, they are terribly proud of them. They offered a diverse selection. Kazumi pushed a couple, not an aggressive upsell, more like a friend trying to get another friend to share a new experience. We’d already explained to her that I would not be sharing the experience since the thing I don’t care for in sushi is essentially what makes a thing sushi in the first place, the sticky rice. I apologized for my inadequacy and coaxed Angel to go ahead and try one anyhow.
She settled for the Spider.
“Is that made with real spiders?" I asked. Which wasn’t really that stupid of a question, since the Japanese commonly refer to crabs as spiders. So the answer was not a resounding “no”.
We went ahead and ordered our bento boxes as well, both of us chose chicken, Angel the Osaka (sesame) style, myself the Katsu style. When we asked Kazumi what that was, she explained that it was a little like steak sauce, or maybe barbecue sauce. I struggled to try to imagine something that tasted a little like ‘A1’ and a little like ‘Sweet Baby Ray’s’.
The Sushi arrived and it was beautiful, a true work of art. Precise, clean, minimalist. It was drizzled with a dark, smoky reduction, just a little. Sticking out on two slices were crispy tempura crab bites. I was tempted, but I just couldn’t get past that sticky rice. Angel was delighted though. She immediately tried to force some on me. I resisted at first until I remembered why I was there in the first place, as a service to you, my devoted fans. So I swallowed my pride. I took a bite that would be mostly crab and boy howdy, it was phenomenal. I pretty much let the rest of lie. Sorry, I just can’t handle sticky rice. I could tell by the not-rice parts though that this was expertly prepared.
Angel had most of the rest of it, savoring every bite. “Easily the best sushi I’ve had.”
Kazumi stopped by to refill our teas, answering questions and getting the jokes. Her accent was quite pronounced, but we understood each other just fine.
The boxes came soon. Neat, tidy, minimalist, precise. I was impressed by what I saw. The two chicken dishes were not made the same way. Angel’s looked like what you might get at a Chinese place, mine looked more like thin strips with a different, coarser, lighter breading. Also quite noticeable, sauces had been drizzled on the chicken, unlike Chinese places that completely flood the dish.  This was simply brilliant. When I tried my first piece I could taste the chicken the breading and a little of the savory sauce, individually, distinctly. Rather than the one-note General Tso at the buffet, this was a melody of flavors and texture. Angel’s sweeter sauce was also just barely spooned on, giving it that same breadth of flavor and texture.
The Rangoons were as good as they get, crispy, creamy, slightly sweet. The gyoza was the stuff of my
dreams. There was something here that seemed familiar, yet absent from my life for many years. We worked together to figure out what made these ‘pot stickers’  a little better, a little lighter than those at the buffets. Angel finally nailed it. “The wrap is thinner.” She declared. Also, the innards were better as well, just a different recipe, a bit more garlic for an earthier, less artificial flavor. We’d both opted for the fried rice, which is one of the only two ways I will eat rice; fried or Krispie. It too was less burdened with lots of extra stuff. There was a slight sprinkling of veggies and meat, but once again, neat, tidy, clean and precise.
It should be no surprise that I didn’t try the California rolls in my bento box. That was okay, the chicken, the gyoza and the Rangoons were plenty filling. Angel agreed, even though it had appeared rather Spartan when delivered, it turned out instead to be more than enough food.
Clean and precise, the food, the place and the staff. The tastes were so much cleaner and fresher than at most Chinese places. The price, thirty four and change before the generous tip. Was it that different and that much better? You bectcha.
Perhaps I'm a bit biased, what with having lived in Japan for three years, I accept that. We simply loved it, we could hardly stop talking about it.
Kazumi (I hope I'm spelling her name correctly) was a delight. Bright, charming, funny, helpful and professional.
I have no bad words. None. We will be back.

* The lacquered wood horses in the top photo are not from the restaurant. They are tokens of the region where I was stationed. They were called Hachinohe  or Tohoku horses, for the region and nearest city. We uncouth, uncultured GI's often called them Misawa Mules. Not unlike Kentucky, where I was whelped, That region of northern Honshu was historically famous for the quality of their horses. These brightly painted icons from my own collection are a celebration of that history. 

And here, the prettiest darn national anthem on the planet.
*Kimigayo - National Anthem of Japan

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