Entering Hayashi-Ya, you’re immediately greeted by the hostess – and any other staffers who happen to be in the vicinity – with a hearty chorus of “Irasshaimase!”
You recognize the traditional Japanese restaurant welcome, but you find yourself wondering how long it’s been since you last heard it. In the new breed of jazzy, neon-lit BOGO roll specialists that have been cropping up like shiitakes on a damp oak log in recent years, the best you’re likely to get is a cursory nod from the sushi chef.
Hayashi-Ya is out to buck that trend. Samisen music sets a serenely traditional mood in a dining room whose furnishings – stone lanterns, faux pagoda roofs, a small forest of potted bamboo –- are evocative of a Japanese village. Kimono-clad waitresses glide among the houses, tea rooms and Zen gardens of this village, pampering customers with a level of service seldom seen nowadays.
You’re seated in the central tatami room, where foot wells under the low tables accommodate Westerners unaccustomed to sitting cross-legged on the floor. All around you, rice paper windows and bamboo partition screens define more intimate spaces: neat rows of tables, cozy booths, a sushi bar and a private dining room that, nine months after the restaurant’s opening, is already a popular site for celebrations and corporate functions.
Both kitchen and sushi bar deliver on the promise of this elaborate setting. A kushiyaki sampler serves up succulent grilled morsels on bamboo skewers, from familiar yakitori to exotic chicken meatballs called tsukune. Hamachi kama, broiled collar of yellowtail, is a taste of the quality of fish on offer from the sushi bar. Gyoza are exemplary, as are tempura shrimp and vegetables.
Tempura is a worthy contender on the entree list, too, where it’s joined by a selection that makes up in quality for what it lacks in extensiveness. Hibachi, teriyaki and noodle dishes – a handful of each – make up the bulk of the offering. Yakiniku, slivers of marinated beef stir-fried with carrots and onions, is a rewarding alternative. The panko crust on tonkatsu is textbook, though the pork cutlets themselves can be dry. Happily, such disappointments are rare.
Hayashi-Ya has a few surprises up its kimono sleeve, too, most of them in the form of dishes from owner Chang Park’s native Korea. Kalbi, Korean barbecued beef short ribs, sneak in under the Teriyaki heading. Under Noodles, you’ll find kimchi udon.
Hwae dup bab, an enormous entree salad with bits of sashimi in the starring roll and a supporting cast of fish roe, nori ribbons and a spicy dressing, is especially welcome as summer temperatures soar. So is cold spicy sashimi soup, a Korean-Japanese fusion whose chile-reddened broth sparkles with ice slivers under a skein of soba noodles.
Birthplace notwithstanding, Park’s professional culinary background is as a sushi chef, including more than 15 years in Japan. His experience is evident in a sushi bar offering that’s as notable for its variety as its freshness and artful presentation.
The nigiri sushi and sashimi list alone runs to 28 options, including a number not often seen in these parts. In addition to fatty tuna, sea urchin and Japanese snapper, you’ll find the even more uncommon fatty salmon and Japanese sea eel. For a small surcharge, you can even get real wasabi.
Hayashi-Ya even raises the ante for the obligatory sushi samplers. The sushi-sashimi-roll sampler for one (a larger platter for two is also available) includes six generous pieces each of nigiri and sashimi (the usual trio of tuna, salmon and yellowtail plus a chef’s choice of three others), and the house specialty roll of your choice.
And what a choice! Even the most jaded palate will be tantalized. You say your favorite Rainbow Roll has lost its color? Try the Popping Spicy Crab Roll, whose unlikely payload of spicy crab, cucumber, asparagus and Pop Rocks will play like fireworks on your tongue. The heat in your usual Spicy Tuna Crunch Roll just doesn’t do it for you anymore? The Extreme Hot Roll (fresh habanero, cucumber and spicy crab, topped with spicy tuna, jalapeño and the aptly named shocking sauce) will light you up.
For my money, though, the most memorable item at Hayashi-Ya is not a roll at all, but listed among the nigiri and sashimi. The menu description, “raw prawn shrimp, fried head,” doesn’t do justice to either half: the pristine raw tails, tasting of sweet shrimp and the sea; or the deep-fried heads, delicately crisp as potato chips and prepared with such care that their fragile antennae remain intact.
I had precisely the same dish four years ago at Chang Park’s first restaurant in Wakefield, which went by the slightly different name of Hayashi. Still does, in fact, though Park (who goes by Mr. Hayashi as a sushi chef) sold that restaurant in 2009. Then, as now, the raw/fried shrimp presentation was one of a gratifying number of pleasant memories. I’m also pretty sure I remember being greeted with “Irasshaimase!”
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