There is no doubt that Hanami Japanese Restaurant, in College Park's Campus Village Shopping Center, caters to the university crowd.
Owner Irene Song, who previously owned a Chinese restaurant in a Nebraska college town, opened Hanami 18 months ago because she knew that selling sushi to the college crowd was a booming market that hasn't really been tapped around the University of Maryland. Song's husband, who is also Chinese, is one of the restaurant's sushi chefs.
About 80 percent of Hanami's business comes from the college, but when the students are away -- whether for the current summer break or for shorter ones during the school year -- families from the nearby area fill the tables in the pinky mauve dining room. "Hanami" means "flower viewing" in Japanese, and the room takes its color from the shades of the flowering Japanese cherry tree.
A small corridor funnels customers to the back of the restaurant, where they enter the dining room at the rear sushi bar, passing the signature refrigerated cases that show off perfectly cut rectangles of brightly colored raw fish. A list of house specialty rolls hangs over the sushi bar, prominently featuring the Diamond Roll, homage to the Terps' diamondback terrapin mascot.
The roll is gorgeous to behold. Divided into four lovely diamonds, the outside of the roll is white tuna, encasing regular tuna, the slight crunch of fried tempura batter and sushi rice. Each diamond is topped with a different color of caviar. The roll is pleasant, but the fish lacks the firm texture and clear taste of sushi and sashimi served at the Washington area's top Japanese restaurants.
Other raw fish dishes tasted over a series of four visits are characteristically lovely on the plate but not totally satisfying to the palate. A splash more ponzu sauce would have helped the flower petal arrangement of pale fluke slices. But the tuna tataki -- not the spicy tuna I expected, but here a triangle of raw tuna quickly seared with a propane torch, sliced and arranged precisely on threads of daikon -- had plenty of the citrus-based ponzu sauce, just not enough flavor in the fish.
The glory of Hanami, rather than the sushi, is the variety of cooked Japanese dishes that make up about half the menu. These preparations are the backbone of home-style Japanese cuisine and often get short shrift at most Japanese restaurants, also eager to capture a part of America's sushi frenzy.
The "age tofu," one of more than a dozen "kitchen appetizers," better exemplifies Hanami's strengths. The fresh tofu, lightly breaded and fried, is pale golden, subtly crisp on the outside and silken inside. Dipped into the thin accompanying tempura sauce, the play of textures and tastes is subtle, but captivating.
Gyoza, the pork-filled dumplings that are too often deep-fried, are properly pan-fried at Hanami. The cooks use a technique that calls for the dumplings to be gently steamed and left in the pan after the liquid evaporates so they are browned on one surface. These dumplings, which arrive at the table still shimmering from the steaming, are light and tasty.
And Hanami's shrimp tempura is everything tempura should be -- light, not crunchy, almost airy and completely greaseless, highlighting the flavors of the shrimp and the vegetables.
Negimaki beef -- paper-thin slices of beef wrapped tightly around green onions -- is perfectly cooked, the lean beef flavorful and the onions retaining a slight crispness. But the efforts are overwhelmed by the sauce that cloaks them; ask for the sauce on the side, as a better option.
Steaming bowls of udon -- thick noodles served in a light broth and topped with seafood or chicken -- are a student favorite at lunch, when groups crowd the dining room. Yaki soba -- thin noodles stir-fried with chicken, beef or shrimp -- are a pale tangle of golden threads interlaced with slivers of meat. They are a lighter version of Chinese lo-mein.
The beef teriyaki is tender and juicy steak, accented with nuggets of carrot and placed on a bed of stir-fried onions that are a good foil for the slightly sweet sauce. The same quality lean beef is used in the hibachi combo, an assortment of beef, fresh scallops and surprisingly tender and flavorful slices of lobster tail. This dish looks a little dull and gray when it arrives at the table, so the clear flavors are a nice surprise.
And for a true Japanese ending to your meal, try one of the mochi ice cream treats -- green tea or red bean ice cream encased in a glutinous rice paste. They taste much better than their description!
--Nancy Lewis (May 24, 2007)