Fried morsels same after a while
The strangest restaurant recommendations I get are from people who don't know whether they liked the place, and expect me to tell them what to think.
Puck's Alley, 1035 University Ave., near parking lot entrance / 489-2747
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays and 5 to 11 p.m. daily
Cost: Dinner for two $40 to $50
Conversations along these lines can be frustrating. A recent one went something like this:
"Have you ever been to Kushiden?"
"No, where is it?"
"Did you like it?"
"I don't know."
"How can you not know? What was the food like?"
"I don't know; it was weird."
"Weird in what way?"
"I don't know; like little balls on sticks."
"Was it good? Was it bad?"
"I don't know."
AARGH! I'm fairly decisive, so it's unfathomable to me that there are people in the world willing to go with the flow and let others dictate taste, whether in music, film, fashion or food. Standards are important, but individuals are always free to give their own thumbs up and thumbs down through patronage or avoidance, provided they can make up their minds.
So it was with a sense of civic duty that I trooped on over to Kushiden with no doubt that I would be able to tell that person what to think, until I found myself in the same boat: undecided.
First of all, I feel I should be apologizing for the seemingly never-ending parade of Japanese restaurants in this column, but they keep coming, and each one is so different they seem to form categories of their own. Kushiden is no exception. Here the specialty is kushi katsu, an assortment of panko-coated, deep-fried meat and vegetables served on skewers. Newbies need only start with a seven-piece ($15) or 10-piece ($19) set to experience the range of kushi katsu available.
Quick flash-frying preserves the integrity of the food, so beef and chicken, the latter lined with sour plum sauce, are still tender, as is shrimp with barely cooked sweetness. Other goods getting the skewer treatment are tofu, a stuffed mushroom, kabocha and American cheese.
A la carte items such as asparagus, sausage, ahi and potatoes with cheese can also be added for $2 per skewer.
The kushi katsu are served with bowls of torn cabbage for cutting the oil and therefore reducing incidences of upset tummies. The cabbage can be flavored by dipping pieces into ponzu or Worcestershire sauces, or a mix of table salt and toasted sesame seeds.
Communication may be difficult with servers using limited English, but the menu is largely self-explanatory, and pictures will help guide you.
NADINE KAM / NKAM@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kushi katsu, from left, kabocha, chicken with ume sauce, shrimp and cheese, are four pieces from a $19 10-piece set at Kushiden in Puck's Alley, fronting University Avenue.
To add balance to the table, there are tofu ($7) and Caesar ($8.50) salads, plus such simple dishes as seafood ($9 for salmon, scallops and shrimp) steamed in foil with onions and soy sauce, three pieces of sugar-sweetened boiled pumpkin ($4) and raw tako with a touch of wasabi ($3.50) served with onions.
Other disparate offerings include slices of fried potato, bacon and asparagus ($8.50) and the popular Japanese cabbage omelet ($8.50) served with plummy okonomi sauce.
Those who prefer individual entrees can make two selections off $15 set menus, pairing a pork or chicken cutlet, for instance, with your choice of a Japanese omelet, potato-and-cheese omelet, the aforementioned asparagus-potato dish or shrimp with mayonnaise.
For dessert there's fried bananas or apples that you can get with or without vanilla and green tea ice cream.
And now the hard part. Did I like it? I wasn't sure. The kushi katsu are delicious, but I don't relish the idea of eating a lot of fried food. The problem is not with the food itself, but with perception and health issues. Those who do want to eat in healthy ways are likely to stay away from fried foods. Those who don't care and eagerly devour tonkatsu and chicken katsu would most likely be drawn to the concept, but portions -- at lollipop or sushi size per morsel -- might not satisfy the typical plate-lunch devotee.
Beyond that, there's something about the presentation that's lacking. There's a visual sameness to the kushi katsu that gets old quickly after the initial eye-opening delivery. (Around the corner, Kohnotori, next to Imanas Tei, avoids such numbing sameness by offering a variety of kushiyaki, or grilled specialties, cooked before patrons' eyes for added interest.)
Side dishes could make a big difference in whether people return, but they are not strong enough to stand on their own in light of the competition for dining, entertainment or any dollar in this town.
I think that many will find the kushi katsu no more than a novelty to be tried once, but it is definitely worth a try. You might even be the one who falls in love with the restaurant immediately.