I have no idea why Panda Gourmet, the restaurant that occupied the Lake Falls Village space before Sushi Hana moved in, closed. It could have been the hidden location, the lack of a liquor license, the quality of the food or something I can't even take a guess at. But whatever it was, the new occupant seems immune. Early on a weeknight when we ate there, every table was filled. Who knew North Baltimore was so hungry for sushi?
This is the second Sushi Hana - the first is in Towson - and owner Po Chan told me in a phone interview earlier this year that many of his Towson customers live in this area. If so, they can get many of the same Japanese noodle dishes, teriyaki, tempura and, of course, sushi in the new, closer-to-home place.
The renovated space is serenely Japanese, with lots of blond wood, a sushi bar and semi-private booths in back.
It's a relaxing place to be, even when it's crowded. A kimono-clad waitress brings hot, scented hand towels to the table before your meal; and if you decide to linger, you won't feel rushed. At the moment it's BYOB, but a liquor license is in the works.
But, like its parent restaurant, the food at the new Sushi Hana has its ups and downs. This is Japanese cuisine for mainstream America. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just hard to get excited about it. But Chan knows his clientele well. They are often parents with children, and this is a good place for families. Children don't have to eat raw fish to enjoy a meal here.
In fact, the best thing we had was a plate of steamed shrimp dumplings (which the menu called shu mai, the Chinese name). That can't be a good sign at a sushi restaurant, can it? But the dumplings were soft and fragile, with mustard for dipping, and we ate every delicious bite.
The sushi combination ran a close second, with an unadorned plate that was appealing in its simplicity. There were the usual suspects, all very fresh: salmon, yellowtail, tuna and whitefish. Extra points for surf clam and tuna roll instead of California roll, but true sushi aficionados will be happier sitting at the bar and ordering individually.
Many of Sushi Hana's customers order rolls, and there are seemingly dozens of them, with a large insert detailing the ingredients. I tried to pick one that would be most appealing to a first-time sushi eater and settled on the Maryland roll. This was lump crabmeat, avocado, mayonnaise and Old Bay.
I'm certainly not a sushi purist (hey, I ordered it, didn't I?), but this was a failure. I don't think it will persuade anyone to take the next step. The Old Bay seasoning is done with a light hand, thank goodness, but there is way too much mayonnaise and too little avocado.
Tempura can be had as either a first course or entree, and it's a smart choice. The shrimp and vegetables aren't overcooked; the crisp golden batter is relatively greaseless. It makes you wonder how this same kitchen can also produce beef on a stick from some cheap cut of beef skewered with pieces of scallion and drowning in teriyaki sauce.
Skip it, and skip the ice-cold iceberg lettuce salad with the usual sweet-sour carrot mash and stray cucumber or two on top. Instead, get the seaweed salad with sesame seeds, although it will add to the bill. (Salad and a light, restorative miso soup come with some of the entrees.)
Our biggest mistake was to order the yosenabe, a noodle dish with seafood that sounded enticing. But the seafood, including shrimp, scallops and a generous lobster tail, was overcooked, and the half-moons of artificial crab were unappetizing.
Desserts are mostly variations on ice creams and sorbets, the most elaborate being the Exotic Bamba, with three tropical sorbets in white chocolate with a chocolate drizzle. No Exotic Bamba was available that night, though, and the one of us that had to have dessert ended up with melting vanilla ice cream and what tasted like Hershey's syrup. The rest of us settled for green tea. (Sadly, the pretty mugs arrive at the table filled with hot water and a tea bag on the side.)
A real plus here is the niceness of the staff, but our server didn't get the concept of clearing used dishes before bringing the next course. I guess the place is simply too busy for its own good.
Still, if you think of Sushi Hana as a neighborhood restaurant, or a place to take the kids or stop by after work, it's a fine addition. As a destination restaurant for sushi? Not so much.