Never mind that the branch of the national eatery closed down years ago and was later massively renovated to become the fine, French-style steakhouse Chateaubriand. Ravaged by flood, that restaurant didn't reopen after Katrina, but the place changed hands once more and opened this spring as Little Tokyo, the third and most ambitious in a small, local chain of Japanese restaurants.
Take a seat at the gleaming new sushi bar and any memory of Shoney's signature buffet-style breakfast bar should vanish. It's a distinctive sushi bar and serves as the visual focal point in the restrained, somewhat austere design of the rest of the restaurant. Lamps resembling a ghostly school of tuna hang beautifully from the ceiling, and the whole area is glassed off from the main dining room like a recording studio. When you sit across the bar from the sushi chef there is little competing for your attention besides the choices of fish awaiting his knife.
Little Tokyo does a good job with appetizers and sushi bar salads, though most are served in such large portions that you need to split them with at least one other person if you intend to eat much more. For instance, the tuna poke salad, a popular update on the traditional Hawaiian standard of raw fish and seaweed, is large enough to be a nice lunch. The chunks of red, raw tuna are cut into blocks, rolled in tiny roe and tossed on a sea of half-moon cucumber slices. Similar but more modest is nuta, an appetizer with slices of tuna barely seared like tataki and served with a thick, sweet sauce and a salad of very thin cucumber ribbons. One of the more unusual selections is salmon tartar, with finely chopped bits of the raw fish shaped into a large, thick cake laced with fat roe that pop under the teeth like salty bubbles.
There's no mistaking the baby octopus for what it truly is. This isn't like squid cut into rings or planks but rather the whole, two bite-sized animal. If they were made out of plastic, your kids could use them as Pirates of the Caribbean action figures. But their intact state is their principle appeal. The flesh is chewy and the texture is intricate from all the tentacles and tiny suction cups, while the body bursts with marine flavor like a poached oyster.
Avoid the buffalo salmon, an experiment combining overcooked fish with the type of spicy sauce you usually get on chicken wings, and the dynamite scallop, a casserole composed of about 15 percent chopped scallop and 85 percent imitation crab with a layer of cheese melted over the top and all served in a "bowl" of rumpled aluminum foil like something your roommate hid at the back of the fridge.
All the sashimi and sushi I sampled were very fresh and flavorful, and the sushi bar serves some well-executed rolls. The tropical roll has alternating layers of salmon and fresh, sweet mango. The Causeway roll, named for the address of Little Tokyo's first location, has attractive limbs of fried, tempura-speckled soft-shell crab reaching out from the wrist-sized roll, which includes snow crab and asparagus. Japanese restaurants seem particularly susceptible to the unappetizing local trend of naming food items for elements from the Katrina disaster, and Little Tokyo is not immune. Still, its "FEMA roll" is one of its best special rolls, with salmon, snow crab, asparagus and avocado making a creamy center draped with a slab of spicy tuna that is truly spicy.
Some disappointing selections on the large menu were the barbecue yellowtail roll that proved dry and the exciting-sounding "immigrant roll," which promised salmon and avocado wrapped with jalapeno-spiked roe but was only as spicy as the wasabi you dunk it in.
If you like your fish raw and straightforward, order the tri-color sashimi, a plate of choice slices of tuna that pull apart into planks, good yellowtail and smooth, fat-striped salmon arrayed with little edible shrubs of radish.
People who don't like sushi can find plenty to eat here, including some renditions of what must be Japanese comfort food. The hearty, stewlike sukiyaki has a tangle of fatty roast beef, just a little bit of tofu, glass noodles and plenty of al dente vegetables in a salty broth.
Other presentations are more elaborate. Order the steak and tempura combination dinner, for instance, and the waiter will bring what looks like an order for a table of four. He'll slide a platform the size of a cafeteria tray in front of you carrying eight or so separate bowls and plates. The main act is the steak, an unidentifiable but satisfying cut sliced thin, chopped into strips and tasting salty from what was probably a marinade of soy sauce. The accompanying tempura has a very buttery, crunchy batter and is piled generously with a mix of shrimp and vegetables. The remaining half-dozen vessels contain sauces, rice, vegetables and even a few slices of melon, which is all the dessert you'll need after this amount of food.