COLUMBUS, Ohio — If you're hungry for Japanese food and wondering where to go in this hemisphere, you are likely to think of Los Angeles, New York or Honolulu. On second thought, you might add San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto or Vancouver, British Columbia. It's doubtful Columbus would be on any list outside the Buckeye State.
But there's a real discernible Japanese flavor to Ohio's capital, thanks in large part to the 32-year presence of Honda in nearby Marysville, the international pull of Ohio State University, whose Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum holds the largest collection of manga, Japanese comic books, outside of Japan, and Columbus' lively multiethnic vibe, which culminates in an annual Asian Festival drawing more than 100,000 visitors (May 26-27).
"Columbus is more of a cultural melting pot than it gets credit for," said Edward Miller, senior manager for news media and industry relations for Honda North America Inc. "Hidden in the flat Midwestern sprawl are dozens of ethnic restaurants whose existence reflects the relative ease of immigrant populations to feel at home.
"The (Japanese) culture is strong and has been that way for 30 years; lots of time for good restaurants to get better and for the marginal ones to go away."
And the good restaurants do indeed get better. Kihachi, a 19-year-old eatery tucked into a strip mall in Columbus' Northwest neighborhood, is so highly regarded that Anthony Bourdain, accompanied by food writer and author Michael Ruhlman no less, visited the restaurant for his "No Reservations" television show.
The number of Japanese restaurants in and around Columbus ranges from 19 to at least 40, depending on who's counting, and there are dozens more if you tally restaurants under a generic "Asian" theme.
Not all of these reach the high level set by Kihachi, cautions Bethia Woolf, owner of Columbus Food Adventures, a food tour company, and an influential Columbus food blogger with four sites to her credit (alteatscolumbus.com; tacotruckscolumbus.com; streeteatscolumbus.com; columbusfoodadventures.com/blog).
"But some of the others are definitely good," Woolf said. "As in any city where there's a sizable Japanese population, the food follows fairly fast. Japanese people, generally, are looking for Japanese food."
Columbus offers an opportunity to be adventurous, to move away from the usual spicy tuna rolls, battered shrimp and sukiyaki. Consider a recent dinner enjoyed by Woolf, which included both deep-fried Atlantic pike skeleton and braised sea bream cheek during a meal at Kihachi.
Here are three ways to savor a little taste of Japan in Columbus.
Kihachi Japanese Restaurant: Try to get one of the 10 or so counter seats so you can watch chef Ryuji "Mike" Kimura and sous chef Tsukasa Endo prepare the meal. The finished dishes are gorgeous, meant to tempt the eye as well as the tongue. Ingredients are of the highest quality — Kimura had a new shipment of matsutake mushrooms to play with the night of our visit — and prepared perfectly. Kihachi's list of specials is written entirely in Japanese, and do try to decipher what they are and order them. Judging by what we tasted, there won't be any disappointment even if you order "blind." Our specials included sushi rolls made with primo pieces of fatty tuna, lotus root stuffed with shrimp and fish paste and deep-fried in tempura batter and a meaty sea urchin sauteed with yuzu rind and miso. (Dinner, Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday. 2667 Federated Blvd., Columbus. 614-764-9040.)
Basho Japanese Restaurant: Our peppy server was a college student whose life and linguistic skills straddled two cultures, a fitting metaphor for a suburban restaurant that offers Japanese menus for both East and West visitors. Basho does the usual suspects quite well, but do ask to see the a la carte menu, which features the more unusual and perhaps challenging dishes (salt-grilled beef tongue or veal liver sashimi or vinegared eel). Order the sushi by the piece and enjoy a wide spectrum of flavors and textures, from roughly textured slices of fatty tuna to sparkling salmon roe preening in their seaweed collars to richly pungent sea urchin. (Lunch weekdays; dinner Monday-Saturday; closed Sunday, 2800 Festival Lane, Dublin. 614-766-7733. bashojapan.com.)
Freshstreet Takoyaki House: Japanese street food gets a clever spin at this tiny takeout stand in a parking lot in the arty Short North neighborhood. Kenny Kim and Misako Ohba sell takoyaki — golf ball-sized rounds of seasoned dough filled — on my visit, with sashimi-grade octopus or sweet corn (or both). Westerners, Kim reported, like the balls fully cooked, which gives them sort of a hush puppy feel, while Japanese customers like the center of the balls to be hot and molten. Try 'em both ways; it's only $5 for eight. The duo also sells a variety of crepes made to order with either savory or sweet fillings. The crisply golden crepes barely contain fillings that range from curried chicken and potato to a soy chorizolike sausage and avocado to organic pear and fromage blanc. (Open weekdays, 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; weekends, noon-6 p.m; closed Tuesdays. 1030 N. High St., Columbus. 614-531-0023.)
If you go
Shop for Japanese products and get a bite to eat at the Kenny Centre shopping center in Columbus' Upper Arlington neighborhood. Among the tenants: Tensuke Market (open daily, 1167 Old Henderson Road, 614-451-6002, tensukemarket.com), a grocery store selling a wide range of Japanese products, from cooking ingredients to kid-friendly sushi (no wasabi paste) to sake. Attached to the market is a cafe called Tensuke Express (lunch, dinner daily, 614-451-4010) that features a 400-gallon fish tank in the center of the room with a counter so you can sit, eat and watch the fish swim by. Also in the Kenny Centre is Akai Hana Restaurant (lunch, Monday-Saturday, dinner nightly; 1173 Old Henderson Road, 614-451-5411; akaihanaohio.com) and Hana Gifts (614-451-7008).
The Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens features a Zen terrace, a courtyard stocked with bonsai, Japan's famed miniaturized trees, and a Pacific Island "water garden" where multicolor koi swim amid equally colorful glass orbs by Dale Chihuly. The art is called Niijima Floatsand was inspired by the glass floats used by fishermen on the Japanese island of Niijima. (Open daily,1777 E. Broad St., Columbus, 614-645-8733; fpconservatory.org).
For more information: Experience Columbus, 866-397-2657, experiencecolumbus.com