Taste column: Sake Hana in Avondale, Pa.
Pay attention when a chef whose cooking you admire tells you where he likes to eat.
Not long ago, a chef told me one of his favorite restaurants was Sake Hana in Avondale, Pa.
He has no ties to the restaurant; it’s just a place he enjoys when he’s not behind the stove. The sushi restaurant, a short hike from Kennett Square, Pa., and Hockessin, opened a little more than two years ago, says manager Michael Chan. It’s in the Pettinaro-owned London Grove Village shopping center at Pa. 41 and U.S. 1.
Since there are a couple of other sushi restaurants in the area, namely Okura Japanese Cuisine in Hockessin and Lily Asian Restaurant Cuisine Sushi & Grill, a Kennett BYOB with all-you-can-eat-sushi on Tuesdays (definitely make a reservation, if you plan to go), my curiosity was piqued.
The dining posse was not impressed when we pulled up. From the outside, Sake Hana is fairly nondescript and unassuming with neon Sapporo, Kirin and Coors Light beer signs in the windows. It sits at the end of a mini-van bustling shopping center that houses an Acme Market, Lowe’s, pet supply and vitamin stores, and a Supercuts.
But, inside tells another story.
The chef told me I would be surprised by the sexy interior, and, he wasn’t kidding.
Who knew there would be a New York City vibe going on in, of all places, a suburban shopping center in the heart of mushroom country?
Walk past the hostess stand and you’re greeted by dramatic, glowing and changing purple, blue and lime green lighting that seems more at home in a nightclub or a city eatery. (The owner is from Manhattan.) Forget tea ceremonies and kimonos, this is modern Japan.
The sushi counter, with about a dozen seats, pulsates with action from the knife-wielding, black-uniform-wearing chefs. As the evening gets underway, patrons, a variety of families and couples, though hardly a hipster among them, begin filling the tables, booths and bar area.
For those who enjoy the Japanese custom of taking off your shoes before entering a house, there are booths (referred to here as tatami booths) with low tables, no chairs, and a variety of zabutons (Japanese cushions) at each setting. Mickey Mouse flip-flops await those who want to wear them. If you have children dining with you, this is where they will beg to sit.
Sake Hana isn’t a strict sushi house. No one will scold you for asking for soy sauce or spicy tuna. Some rolls are so big you’ll be tempted to eat them the traditional way – with your fingers, rather than the unwieldly plastic chopsticks. The large menu has the whole of Japanese cuisine – yakitori, noodles, sushi, soup – but also veers into pan-Asian mix-and-match dishes, namely Chinese, Thai and some Indian.
More surprises are in store when it comes to such dishes.
Sometimes, spring rolls and gyoza (dumplings) can be the throw-away items at pan-Asian restaurants. Not here. The six gyoza ($6) are browned and crispy on the outside, and the thin wrappers hold a juicy pork filling. Vegetable spring rolls ($4.50) are another good, not-at-all-doughy bite, with discernible vegetables and a tasty plum dipping sauce.
Rock shrimp tempura ($10), served piping hot, is stunningly good. Its light and airy batter still has a nice crunch, even though it’s lightly tossed in a not-so-spicy mayonnaise and sprinkled with black sesame seeds. The shrimp is sweet.
Still, cucumber lollipops ($11), a sushi bar appetizer, was the darling of the night. Sushi chefs roll a choice of salmon, tuna or yellowtail with avocado around a ring of cucumber strips instead of rice. The roll is held together with a black skewer – hence the lollipop – and a sweetish ponzu sauce is drizzled on top along with thinly sliced scallions. It tastes fresher and lighter than the usual maki.
Since this is suburbia, the gracious servers know children will be among the customers and they cater quite nicely to them. Children-friendly chopsticks are provided (if you ask) and soft drinks come in adorable Buddha bear cups.
My visit was with a group, so we sat at a table. I’m guessing solo diners and nigiri and sashimi lovers will likely opt for the sushi counter, where the staff seems friendly, engaging and ready to serve everything from uni to kampachi to live scallops.
Purists will be happy to hear that Sake Hana does indeed have omakase, or a chef’s choice dinner. It’s $60 per person, and up to $80 if you include sake flights.
Novices should appreciate that rolls are listed as cooked and raw, there’s a wide variety to choose from, and the plate presentation is superb. Some rolls are listed as spicy. While there is a little sneaky heat, you’ll find no dangerous burn. (You can get that from the accompanying wasabi.)
The rice is nicely seasoned with vinegar and some of our favorite rolls included the TNT ($11), tuna salmon, red snapper and avocado with scallion, eel sauce and spicy mayonnaise, and the rainbow roll with its assorted raw fish, cucumber, avocado and tempura flakes. Lobster King ($15) includes lobster tempura and a lobster salad, while the Rock-and-Roll ($12.50) layers shrimp tempura with spicy tuna and spicy salmon.
Sushi devotees are sure to stay with the raw items, but just for kicks, I got a takeout order of hibachi steak ($19), medium-rare, to see what it was like. Landlubbers should be happy with the plentiful and tender chunks of sirloin steak, served along with mushrooms and broccoli and a giant pile of rice. Another surprise at Sake Hana.