People often think that writing restaurant reviews is nothing but fun and games and free meals. But it can be hard work, mediocre food and a lot of fretting about what to write and how to write it.
If every restaurant were like Sugano, I’d have to agree with the people who think I’m just an overfed freeloader. This wonderful Japanese restaurant — last reviewed by the Herald-Leader in 1999 — has no pretensions to anything but good food, which it delivers. The fish is fresh, the tempura is perfectly fried, the pickled vegetables are subtle, the gyoza (dumplings) have tender skins and tasty filling, the edamame are nutty and not too salty, and there is Kirin on draft.
A recent, very ample dinner for four cost about $118 before tip, meaning that for less than $30 a person you can save the flight to Japan and eat a wonderful Japanese meal with plenty of beer to wash it down. To get there you will have to venture beyond downtown, bypass any of the new, trendy dining centers and the well-lit suburban venues to find an unimpressive, aging, strip shopping center on Eastland Parkway. There is a reason that almost every online review of Sugano mentions the location using words like “sketchy,” “rundown,” “not the best neighborhood,” and “hole in the wall.”
But it’s worth the trip. Inside Sugano — again not many pretensions in the decor of this well-lit, minimally outfitted locale — chef/owner Shigehiro Sugano rules over this benevolent, small universe, making sushi behind glass cases filled with fresh seafood. He chats and drinks as his hands create the wonderful offerings that come to your table.
The edamame are complimentary, but our group also ordered for starters gyoza and pickled vegetables. Too often, recently, it’s seemed to me like the dumplings I’ve ordered have consisted of tightly packed glutinous masses of not-too-tasty meat encased in dough that takes more than a fork to pierce. I’ve come to suspect they originate in a huge factory where taste and texture subleties are not the top priority. So, it was a pleasure and a relief to taste the Sugano gyoza. I don’t know if they are made on site, but they certainly were both tender and flavorful. As for the pickled vegetable, the standout was a stuffed daikon radish and the really wonderful pickled eggplant. You can’t go wrong.
I have no real complaints about any of the sushi we tried but the standout for me was the spider roll, which is soft-shell crab that has been fried before being encased in rice. The name, I think, comes from the pieces of sushi that contain the tentacles, which stick out like remarkably appetizing spider legs.
We ordered both shrimp and vegetable tempura. Here, again, the batter encasing the main ingredient trips up a lot of restaurants, becoming a heavy, oil-sodden mass. Not so at Sugano, where a light batter was a compliment to whatever it sheltered rather than something to make your way through to get to the good stuff.
Some of the online commenters, but by no means a majority, complained about the service at Sugano. There may be bad days, but we certainly did not experience that. Our waitress was pleasant, helpful and prompt.
My only complaint about her was that she told us the truth when we asked about rumors that Sugano is closing. It’s true, she said, Mr. Sugano is ready to retire and travel and so will hang up his sushi tools in August. I’d suggest taking a trip to Eastland Drive before that sad day arrives.
Jacalyn Carfagno: 859-231-1652
Sugano Japanese Restaurant
Where: 1533 Eastland Parkway, Suite 7
Hours: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tues.-Sun.
Notes: Major credit cards, vegetarian options, handicap accessible.