Photos by Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
The newly opened Okome House, a project led by Chef Hide Tozawa (formerly of Kyatchi), is a welcome rarity. It’s a Japanese restaurant that proudly steers clears of the favorites that Americans clamor for: you can’t order a California roll, or dumplings dunked in soy sauce, or shrimp tempura.
Instead, the menu of this South Minneapolis restaurant is dominated by two Japanese favorites that are lesser known in the United States: donburi (rice bowls laden with simmered vegetables and/or proteins), and onigiri. Onigiri sit comfortably within the seasoned rice-and-more family of foods known as “sushi,” but in contrast to the delicacy of nigiri or maki they are rugged and made for traveling. They can frequently be found in gas stations and convenience stores from Honolulu to Tokyo and beyond, and each one offers four or five substantial bites of sustenance.
These triangles of seasoned rice come with do-it-yourself nori, dried seaweed used as a wrapper. If you’re like me, you’ll do it pretty poorly – online tutorials aside, I struggled to make a perfect green triangle out of my wrapped onigiri. Each onigiri also boasts its own style of stuffing, something tart or bold or creamy or smoky to contrast the rice that surrounds it.
What follows is my assessment of the Okome House onigiri, ranked in order of my own personal preference. And here I should add a disclaimer: all of them were good, I’d eat any of them again, and the gap between “worst” and “best” is surprisingly narrow. At any rate, here’s the menu.
TAKANA / mustard leaf / $2.50
Mild and earthy, the yellows and greens of pickled mustard leaf offer a lovely contrast to the white rice. Perfectly pleasant, but more bite and/or heat would have been welcome.
SHAKE / cooked salmon / $2.50
If you’re in a serene mood, the mellow-on-mellow alliance of gently cooked salmon and seasoned rice will be a pleasing one. Still: additional drama would have been welcome here.
TUNA MAYO / cooked tuna with mayo / $2.50
While the insertion of a tuna fish sandwich into the world of sushi seems like a counterintuitive move, it actually works out just fine – the gentle crunch of the nori and the soothing, yielding texture of the tuna and rice make for a pleasant contrast, and the flavors are complementary, too.
YUKARI / dried shiso / $2.50
The basil-like kick of shiso brings the drama in a way that takana couldn’t – this purple-flecked triangle conveys some lovely herbal punch that is anchored by the familiar rice-and-nori base that comprises onigiri.
UME / pickled plum / $2.50
Tart, bright, salty, and vinegar-kicked, ume is one of the most delightful and bracing things you can find inside of onigiri – it conveys a ton of flavor, and is a terrific counterpoint to the mellow nature of the white rice.
OKAKA / sweet smoked shredded tuna / $2.50
Much as the brightness of ume makes for a pleasing contrast with its surrounding rice and nori, the rich, full-bodied smokey flavor of the tuna inside an okasa onigiri plays well with the low-key flavors of its ricey jacket. There’s nothing acrid or aggressive about the smoke flavor, either.
TORI / chicken karaage / $2.50
The gentle crunch and balanced saltiness of the gently fried chicken chunks inside of this onigiri offer a fine contrast to the rice, and make for a pleasing pocket of flavor.
EBI MAYO / cooked shrimp with mayo / $2.50
Like the tuna mayo onigiri, the Ebi Mayo experience is a bit of like-on-like, with mildness supporting mildness. But the shrimp provide an extra bit of lovely natural sweetness that elevate the whole experience and keep it from being too much same-on-same.
MENTAIKO / spicy cod roe / $3
Well worth the fifty cent premium attached to its price, the Mentaiko Onigiri is the closest thing this product line has to a flavor bomb – the spicy roe is salty, and creamy, and legitimately hot, offering a clean, serious attack that fades quickly into the gentle embrace of the surrounding rice. This is onigiri with a punchy sense of drama, and would make an ideal appetizer for whatever Okame House meal follows in its fiery wake.