The wise diner does not eat sushi at an unknown restaurant in the suburbs of an Upper Midwestern city. And he or she most certainly doesn’t do so on a Monday night, the one night of the week where, almost without exception, you’re guaranteed to have the week’s weakest choice of fish.
But that’s how one of our recent visits to Haiku went down, and we came away not merely unscathed, but actively pleased by overall the experience.
A bit of background about the newly-opened Haiku Japanese Bistro: It’s the third local Japanese restaurant owned by Jonathan Li, who also runs Osaka Sushi and Hibachi in Golden Valley and Fargo. It’s located in Mendota Plaza in Mendota Heights and has the same interior styling you’ll find at just about decent local sushi place: clean lines and cool almost-to-the-point-of-icy vibe. There’s no reason to suspect that it’s any more noteworthy than one of the seemingly 800 interchangeable Japanese places cluttering up Uptown (Fuji Ya and Moto-i being the exceptions to that aspersion), but it is.
Nigiri first, because that feels like the most audacious thing going on at Haiku. On a Monday night, the tuna nigiri ($5.50, above) we ordered were fine — the rice tender, the fish lacking in taste but not unpleasantly textured or fishy in smell or flavor. Neither a win nor a loss. Later in the week, the nigiri was better — more flavorful, more tender, and actively tasty. In both cases, the stuff looked and tasted as though the people preparing it knew their stuff. And the hamachi (yellowtail) was scrumptious — it tasted fresh and almost creamy, with a bit of a citrus kick.
Much can and will go wrong with sushi rice — it can be gummy, or overcooked, or suffer from any one of a number of other flavor- or texture-related problems. And the ratio of fish to rice can easily be blown; Haiku’s sushi chefs pulled it off.
The restaurant’s more elaborate rolls are largely variations on a theme: spicy meets crunchy meets creamy meets rice and seaweed. And they’re largely the same from a quality perspective: good ranging to very good, with our favorite roll being (the Mendota, $13.50) a warm, balanced, and soothing combination of shrimp tempura, cucumber, spicy salmon, and sliced avocado. The Haiku Roll ($14, above) was similarly tasty, featuring a full-court press of tuna, salmon, and yellowtail, plus (as usual) avocado and spicy mayo.
We tried the shrimp tempura roll ($8, pictured above with tuna nigiri) and it effectively used both black and white sesame seeds to impart a particularly textural spin on this longstanding favorite.
But as it turns out, the stupidest-looking thing on the menu, the Spicy Tuna Pizza ($12) was the best thing we ate, full stop, no qualifier. Take a scallion pancake — chewy, full of texture and flavor. Top it with raw chopped tuna, salmon, and yellowtail, spicy mayo, ponzu, and some crispy green onions, and you get a surprisingly refined concerto of texture and flavor. All the elements work individually, but together there’s a multiplier effect. We hoovered down our tiny pizza in a minute flat, and seriously considered ordering a second.
Pushing the whole restaurant toward excellence was unexpected grace note after grace note — things that other sushi joints wouldn’t bother to do well were accomplished with care and thought. A small order of Hibachi Shrimp ($8, above) — what could be less interesting? But Haiku’s shrimp were properly cooked — not overcooked, as shrimp so often are, and covered with the flavorful, chewy crackle that comes from fire-kissed sauce.
The edamame ($5) were a good bellweather for the meal as a whole. It’s very easy to get overcooked and under-seasoned edamame when you go out to eat and these were perfectly by-the-book — no fancy twist, just a classic take on a classic starter.
Pan-fried Gyoza ($6) are as pedestrian an appetizer as you can find, but here they were light on the palate and soothing once dipped in the accompanying sauce, the wrappers properly kissed with carbon. And even the ice cream mochi ($3.50 for two, above) were a noteworthy treat for the eyes (cut most of the way through into a flower-like shape) and the tastebuds (served with just a dab of flavorful sauce that brought the dish up a full step).
While Haiku isn’t knocking Masu, Sushi Fix, or Origami out of the top three local sushi spots any time soon, it’s making a decidedly serious run at the prospect — all it will take are a couple of bad bumps and a couple years of serious effort on Haiku’s part, and the area’s Japanese food fans may find themselves making a reverse commute for dinner.
Avoid the mixed drinks unless you like cartoonish mall fare. Don’t order the nigiri or sashimi on Mondays, a rule probably best extended to just about every place in the state. But do go to Haiku, explore the menu, and prepare to have your expectations exceeded or perhaps eviscerated.
Sunflower in bloom
a wheel of color, shining
like tuna pizza
Haiku Japanese Bistro
754 Highway 110, St. Paul (Mendota Plaza)
Mon-Thu: 11am-2:30pm, 4:30pm-10pm
Fri: 11am-2:30pm, 4:30pm-11pm
OWNER: Jonathan Li
VEGETARIAN/VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $11.50-30