Oh, to be young and hip. But that was then, this is now.
On a brilliant blue day on the summery side of fall, Tastebud and I met at the gorgeous Ra Sushi in Leawood’s Park Place.
Floor to high ceiling, this restaurant is a dramatic blend of contemporary Asian combined with a strong sensory vibe. In other words, it’s a big, beautiful 5,000-square-foot room that jumps.
There are no lotus blossoms or misty mountain scrolls to be found. Instead, you’ll find giant ribs of wood lining the ceiling that, in parts, drips with deep red globes. An illuminated glass wall dances with light while you choose whether to sit at the traditional sushi bar, dining room or cocktail bar.
The place is not sweet, soft nor hushed. Bold strokes of crimson punctuate stone walls and steel accents. Music will erupt, mostly late, but can elevate whenever. The young can handle it, everyone else must try.
Late in the l990s this spirited, seductive concept was conceived in Old Town Scottsdale, Ariz. by Rich Howland and Scott Kilpatrick. They wanted a place with alluring ambiance that has since gown to 25 locations nationally. Leawood’s room is literally joined at the hip to the new Aloft Hotel.
Executive Chef Tai Obata has mastered the menu blending fresh sushi sliced to order and signature rolls with authentic and modern Japanese fusion entrees.
That’s a lot to digest for the not-so-hip-but-hungry.
We started the adventure with a crunchy collection of pineapple cheese wontons ($7.50), “RA”Ckin’ shrimp ($10.75), shrimp tempura ($9.75) and lobster spring rolls ($9.75). Every morsel, and there’s plenty of each, had its own dipping sauce, which was a nice alternative to mainstays: teriyaki or soy.
Meanwhile, Tastebud, well-versed in this realm, gave me the heads-up for round two.
For starters, she explained, if you sit at the sushi bar, you’re expected to converse with the chef, and if you’re indulging in nigiri (fresh fish pressed into a pad of rice), dunking too much into wasabi, ginger or dipping sauce isn’t good etiquette.
Behavior in check, chopsticks poised, we were presented with hand-cut nigiri, salmon, tuna and crab marching in line down a simple white plate. I tried the crab as Tastebud illuminated sampling others I shied away from (go ahead, call me chicken).
I was schooled in Sushi 101 that soy paper (used to wrap rolls) was much less “ocean-tasting” than seaweed. Handy knowledge as I sampled a crunchy shrimp tempura roll peppered with red beet tempura flakes and drizzled with sweet eel sauce ($8.25). I must admit, the Tootsy Maki, a crab mix, shrimp and cucumber roll topped with tempura bits was delightful ($8.25). My favorite, by a long shot, was the Yellow Monkey roll. So much is packed into this chubby piñata you can’t believe the flavors: roasted red peppers, marinated artichokes, cream cheese, rice and seaweed. The whole pinwheel is topped with mango and cashews, then drizzled with kiwi-wasabi ($10.25). Hoo ha!
I glanced around at the oh-so-thin crowd chatting while adeptly skewering various rolls Dynamite and Tsunami Salmon. Some were opening their bento box.
Let’s face it: the Japanese are attuned to aesthetic. Contrast our lunchbox decorated with loony cartoon characters. Not so the bento box. Rather, it’s a lacquered, sophisticate compartmentalized with nary an anime to be found. Instead, of cold meatloaf, you’ll find a choice of shrimp, vegetable, chicken, beef, salmon tempura or teriyaki, miso soup, salad, rice, a spinach gyoza (potsticker) and a vegetable spring roll. Everything promotes beauty, good taste and almost no calories.
Should you choose to bulk up however, there are always noodles: stir-fried, tofu or udon. Marry them to the cooked beef and chicken dishes. Personally, the Chicken Katsu, a breaded breast on Asian coleslaw with wasabi mashed potatoes and Asian barbecue ($13.25) sounded tempting.
Take a breath before the final indulgence…fried ice cream. In this case, it was cinnamon tempura, lightly battered cinnamon swirl ice cream that was flash fried and dazzled with a chocolate raspberry glaze ($6.50). It was so dreamy it was a perfect finish to a colorful, five-senses experience.
My primer in the art of sushi is well on its way.
words by Gloria Gale
photos by Steve Puppe