Good intentions and spotty execution make for mixed results at Hanabi

John Yoo and Sunny Kim opened their Japanese restaurant Hanabi in an unassuming space near the Northcross Wal-Mart in October. The name translates to “fireworks” in Japanese, and while some of the dishes at the moderately priced sushi restaurant explode with fresh flavor, several suffer from a failure to launch. The expansive menu features hot and cold appetizers, hot entrees and noodle dishes. But, as with most sushi restaurants, the thing people want to know about is the fish.

How is it at Hanabi? It seems to depend on who is doing the cutting and what pieces you order. Fresh pieces of hamachi ($3) had a light sweetness amplified by a drizzle of honey and the slight sear of Thai chili ringlets that exhibited the subtle imaginative touches executive chef Dong Ho Choo (formerly of Afin) brings to his creations. A shimmering bite of silvery shime saba ($2.50) expressed its pungent vinegar flavor with little adornment. The citrus-splashed o toro ($8) was the prize of the bunch, the fatty tuna rippling like striated cotton candy across a dwarfed bite of rice dabbed, like all the nigiri at Hanabi, with a tiny shmear of wasabi.

Those pieces, along with a daily special of three-line grunt ($3.50), melted into easy bites, but a stubborn piece of sake toro ($3), wearing fleshy marks that spoke of sloppy butchering, put up a chewy and stringy fight, as did a ginger marmalade-topped grouper special piece ($3.50) that was slightly warm, limp and smelled like it was nearing its expiration date.

Temperature problems also confounded with an artful dish of odori ($12.95), a sweet shrimp carpaccio assembled to replicate the abdomen of the crustacean, served with a deep plum vinaigrette and a crunchy head that tasted of the sea. The mildly adventurous to whom the carpaccio appeals will likely enjoy the rich, creamy slices of monk fish liver ($3.50) wrapped in nori and served as a special one visit.

Appetizers started each meal on a relative strong note. The grilled baby octopus of the iidako yaki ($7.95) carried a slight smoky char and remained tender, with cilantro-garlic pesto giving a floral and savory depth to the dish and coconut chips and chili sauce combining in sweet harmony. The chili escolar appetizer ($7.95) slightly resembles the exceptional hama chili from Uchiko. The dish at Hanabi replaces the sweetness of orange with honey, but the garlic chip vinaigrette and fermented funk of gochujang bring a little too much expressiveness to the dish.

Hanabi offers daily lunch specials and bento boxes that range from $9 to $19, but you can order from the full menu at any time of day. That menu of entrees includes a buttery and meaty walu walu ($21.95) with a mild warmth that betrayed the firm sear marks. The filet mignon with uni butter ($19.99) again showed the imagination and respectable intentions of the restaurant, but the overly sweet and viscous shitake mushroom sauce and undercooked asparagus put the meat, which had the texture of tuna, squarely in the “banquet dining” category. We didn’t finish the filet, which led to some polite questions from our server, who was prompt, eager and delightfully friendly throughout the meal.

That level of graciousness and enthusiasm helped smooth over the few bumps during our meals at the restaurant that features handsome but subtle bamboo, stone and cut-wood wallpaper elements, along with a smooth jazz soundtrack that is oddly relaxing. Despite the Spartan exterior, the thoughtful interior design and personable staff speak to the mom-and-pop ethos of the restaurant owned by husband and wife Yoo and Kim.

One meal ended with a free red bean panna cotta dessert the kitchen had yet to add to the menu. The dish hadn’t quite figured out a way to integrate the flavors and textures of the beans and cream. Like several of the things that came out of the kitchen at Hanabi, the spirit was commendable but the execution could use some attention.

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