by Elissa Karg
We felt very lucky on the day that we joined in a celebration of Cherry Blossom’s 10th anniversary. The event was open to the public ($10 — a true bargain), but, being such very important people, we were seated in a tatami room with the dignitaries. I sat next to the Japanese consul, whose kind wife guided me through some of the trickier aspects of Japanese dining. Meanwhile, the co-diner wowed a group of Japanese businessmen with tales of Japanese meals he had enjoyed since childhood.
The highlight of the evening was watching chef Hiroshi Utsunomiya slice a 100-pound tuna. “One Entire Tuna, No Leftovers” said the headline on a flier describing the celebration, and in small type: “FYI: Even Iron Chef Morimoto has only done this twice before!” I asked Shigeru Yamada, co-owner of Cherry Blossom, why slicing tuna was such a rare event; after all, the tuna must be sliced if it is to be eaten. Yes, he said, but usually it is ordered from a distributor in one-quarter-sized or one-eighth-sized pieces. The work is so precise that most chefs will not do it in front of an audience.
The tuna had been flown in from Florida that morning and was very fresh. Utsunomiya (who has cooked for Emperor Hirohito) first cut off the fins, then aligned his long knife parallel to the body. The body is sliced lengthwise by quarters, like giant slabs of watermelon. Cutting through the black-and-silver rind revealed the rich red meat within. As each quarter was lifted from the skeleton, the crowd cheered.
At the other end of the sushi bar, a team of cooks was pressing little slices of tuna into rice balls for sushi. When we returned to the tatami room, platters of deep-red belly tuna were waiting for us. This is the co-diner’s idea of heaven: more sashimi than you could eat.
When we left our table to watch the festivities, it was laden with platters of half-eaten shrimp tempura; skewers of chicken breast, skin and liver; a stew of root vegetables, none of which I had ever eaten before; Japanese meatballs; sushi rolls wrapped in nori; boiled shrimp, soybean pods and more.
The party began with a performance by the ZeRo Taiko Orchestra in the restaurant’s little garden. ZeRo, based in Atlanta, mixes traditional taiko (drumming) with synthesized sound and stunning dance by Erika Atsumi Foreman, who weaves drumming into her movement. One arm turned like a windmill, striking the drum with each revolution, while her other arm passed under the windmill to strike another drum. The precision was exacting, while the music was so energetic I could feel the brick walls reverberating.
We returned to Cherry Blossom anonymously for dinner a week or so later. The menu there is more extensive than at many area Japanese restaurants. We had an appetizer of sunomono, which means vinegar dressing. In this case it contained not just the usual cucumber and seaweed but also slices of crab, octopus, shrimp, tuna, yellowtail and mackerel ($7). We also ordered hiyayakko ($4) a soft, chilled tofu served on a bed of ice, with garnishes of scallions, ginger and bonito flakes. It was pristine and lovely.
The entrées max out with a combination dinner of lobster tail, beef and chicken teriyaki, shrimp tempura, broiled salmon, pork yakatori and more, all served in a wooden boat ($33.50). But you can eat well and more modestly. There is a sushi bar as well as a yakatori (grill) bar; sake, wine and beer are available. All the standard entrées are offered, as well as things I haven’t seen elsewhere, such as kamonabe — sliced duck cooked in broth at your table, with vegetables, tofu and noodles. I ordered ten zaru ($13) which combines chilled buckwheat noodles with shrimp and vegetable tempura. We also tried oyako cha ($7.50) a fish broth served in a little iron cauldron with salmon roe, salmon, rice, egg and seaweed.
Ask about the dessert specials. We had a rice cake filled with sweet red beans. It was interesting, different and clearly authentic.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.