With the holidays upon us, the weeks are filled with numerous parties, family dinners, and an endless supply of cakes, cookies, and other irresistible treats. Additionally, there is always an abundance of rich dishes and seasonal drinks that can test the sensibilities of most calorie conscious eaters. Thus it seems logical to seek a break from all the wretched excess, even if for just a night or two, and turn to the simple cuisine of Japan for a respite.
The Two River area is home to a number of Japanese/Pan Asian restaurants who do more contemporary riffs, but Sono, in Middletown, is a proponent of clean, classic Japanese sushi and well-prepared cold and cooked dishes, minus the heavy sauces and gimmicky toppings; just what we wanted for a change of pace. The storefront setting is not one of high drama and overdone ambience, but rather, clean, bright, comfortable, unfussy and efficient, with genuinely cordial, attentive service. One concession to décor is a beautiful fish tank with colorful exotic fish near the front.
Tuna Tataki ($12.95), a large portion of thinly sliced, lightly seared tuna in a delicate lemon soy sauce with shreds of daikon (white radish), was both refreshing and savory.
A small bowl of sliced squid salad ($6.95) had some pleasant chewiness but was still tender, with a pickled quality derived from rice vinegar, sesame oil, and a hint of ginger. Highly addictive.
Shrimp Shumai ($5.95), the Japanese take on a traditional Chinese dish, steamed dumplings, was a one bite morsel of comfort food; a wonton skin-like dough wrapper encasing a filling of ground shrimp.
Our selection of sashimi ($2.50 per piece) arrived on the customary wooden boat which still is a conversation stopper because of its size and display of the colors and shapes of glistening fish. Thick slices of ruby red maguro (tuna) was sparkling fresh, as was the creamy, silky white tuna, (a misnomer on most menus, as it is not tuna at all, but escolar, a dense snow-white fish). Chunks of hamachi (yellowtail), salmon roe sushi, and salmon sashimi: fatty, lush, and smooth. If allowed a minor quibble, the sashimi was chilled more than I like, and would have been even better if served slightly cool, not cold.
Sweet Potato Tempura Roll ($4.50) shared a square plate with Red Clam ($2.50) and artfully sliced squid in a rosette shape.
Half Seafood Maki Roll ($8.95/ 4 pcs) was a very tasty mix of tuna, yellowtail, salmon, cucumber, roe and avocado, made with brown rice as per request.
Lest my guests and I were being too fanatical about no indulgences, a surprisingly delicious Chicken Katsu ($5.95), long, finger-like pieces of juicy breast meat, coated with a thin layer of panko breadcrumbs and deep fried until impossibly crisp and totally greaseless, arrived with a very respectable Tonkatsu sauce (Japanese style BBQ dipping sauce of ketchup, soy, Worcestershire, ginger, and spices). Light and delicate with a wonderful crunch, it was a table favorite.
Once we fell off the wagon, we ordered a dish that will draw me back again….Yaki Soba ($14.95); stir-fried sautéed chicken, buckwheat noodles, carrots, cabbage, and snow peas, and a hint of ginger; one of my favorite hot dishes of the night.
Beef Teriyaki ($22.95), a sizeable portion of rare, broiled New York Strip with a thickened Teriyaki sauce was good, if unremarkable, compared to the other dishes.
Japanese cuisine marries well with Rieslings, Champagne or any off-dry whites; they are safe bets, but the fattiness of tuna and some of the other meaty fishes, and non-seafood dishes allow for lighter reds, such as a Cru Beaujolais; not Beaujolais Nouveau, or Village, but rather a Fleurie, Brouilly, or Morgon.
Happily, Sono is a BYO. As an experiment, I brought a 1998 Zind Humbrecht Clos Windsbuhl Reisling Vendage Tardive (Late Harvest), a sweeter than usual choice which worked well at the outset, but became tiring to drink after a while. Fresher and crisper, with lots of concentration, was the 2013 Veyder-Malberg Viesslinger Bruck Riesling, which went the distance. You’ve gotta love the names of those Austrian and Alsatian wines!
If we heed the dire warnings in the media that on an average we will each gain 5 to 7 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then make losing weight our No. 1 New Year’s resolution, it is not a bad idea to choose a few dinners that are more moderate so we can enjoy the other meals with less guilt. Sono is a good choice for healthy Japanese food, in a friendly setting that will allow you to leave feeling full and even a bit virtuous.
1098 Route 35 South
Bob Sacks, longtime food and wine buff, reviews restaurants in this bimonthly column. Read his reviews here.
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