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Takumi: From Bread to Rolls 

Revamped after just half a year in business, a newcomer to the Japanese dining scene remains an oddity.

Takumi was a very different type of place when it joined the growing ranks of Japanese restaurants in the city. It still is, but the current Takumi also is a different restaurant from the one that opened its doors early this year. Some of the changes have made the restaurant more accessible and comprehensible, but Takumi remains an unusual dining experience.

The desire to differentiate a new Japanese restaurant in a market already teeming with sushi bars and bento box lunch specials is understandable, but the original incarnation of Takumi went too far. Meals began with a length of New Orleans-style French bread in all its crackly-crusted messiness, which seemed out of place flurrying over Takumi's sushi list. Even the waitresses seemed embarrassed when setting it awkwardly between soy sauce bowls. There was the usual selection of raw fish and sushi rolls, but the menu was geared toward a collection of complex and very costly entrées that tried to split the difference between traditional Japanese dishes and haute French preparation. Sticking with sushi seemed to miss the point of the restaurant, but once the point of the restaurant became clear, it seemed better to miss it after all.

Takumi appears to have gotten the message, and some radical changes have been made to its menu recently. Gone are those entrées, and replacing them is a short list of very large 'entrée rolls," only half of which involve fish. But even with the changes, this is hardly your standard New Orleans Japanese restaurant, and while some of the differences are appealing, others prove jarring.

Takumi is the latest project of Yusuke Kawahara, founder of the flourishing local chain of Little Tokyo restaurants. He took over the lease of the stately townhouse at the edge of the Garden District that had been Table One for two years. Vestiges of Table One's attractive dining room remain, though with some curious design additions. First among them is the bank of rigid, narrow, high-backed booths, which are about as comfortable as the cheater booths at Crescent City Steak House and feel a bit like dining within a pod.

A new sushi bar has materialized along the stately, oak drinking bar, and the original sushi prep area " a glass enclosure resembling a display case for something volatile or alien " has been relegated to a role as a beer and sake cooler.

The gigantic entrée rolls seem more like the work of the kitchen than the sushi bar. These rolls can stretch to more than two feet in length, and are arranged around a collection of garnishes and sauces as if each were its own miniature buffet line.

There's the Kobe beef roll, with the rice filled with cream cheese, chewy enoki mushrooms, cucumber and pickled carrot, then draped with thin slices of the beef and joined by a demitasse of jus. Generally, I regard the appearance of Kobe beef in any form other than steak as a way to pad a price tag, but the slim allotment of the meat on this roll was indeed exceptionally smooth, almost liquid on the tongue. More interesting still was the duck roll, topped with lean duck breast. The whole thing was wrapped around a seared cake of foie gras and dotted with a thick, sweet reduction that was eventually absorbed by the sushi rice.

Most extravagant " and, at $30, the most expensive " is the lobster roll. It involves quite a lot of sweet lobster chunks sharing space in the roll with cream cheese and mushrooms and then capped by the more pronounced sea flavor of meaty crab legs. The presentation is crowned by half a hollowed-out lobster shell serving as a bowl for three 'shrimp balls," or bits of chopped shrimp lightly bound together and fried to a hush puppy consistency.

After all that, the bluefin tuna roll sounded downright conventional, yet it proved the most pleasing of all the supersized entrée rolls. The cold fish inside the roll tasted very much like rare beef, while the seared fish along the top had a smoky edge. Like all the rolls, it was beautifully composed. Though very large, it is long rather than thick so that the pieces can actually fit in the mouth.

The appetizer list, predictably dubbed tapas, has enough unique dishes to merit some exploration, but you have to get past menu descriptions that are silly to the point of obnoxious. They veer from pidgin French ('les soups et salads") to what you might find at a surfer-dude taco stand: mushrooms are called ''shrooms," and the description of the 'steamed chicken ta-tas," (aka chicken breast) comes with the printed exclamation, 'yeah we went there!" Yeah, they did and, no, you should not.

These soggy chicken bits were a low point, but on the other end was the miso gumbo. One of the best starters here, it is an especially hearty miso soup with a roster of local shellfish and firm okra. Tabasco would seem more appropriate than wasabi to heat it up. None was forthcoming, but at least no French bread was offered.

click to enlarge hef Akihiko Kidera with the entre-sized lobster roll at Takumi. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • hef Akihiko Kidera with the entre-sized lobster roll at Takumi.
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