851 N. Quentin Rd., Palatine
Prices: Appetizers, $5-$11; entrees, $10-$30; sushi nigiri, $3-$7; desserts, $2.50-$5.50.
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Try: Shrimp tempura, tako (octopus) nigiri, Spider roll, Sun Fire roll.
Tips: Casual atmosphere. Free parking in lot. Beer, wine and sake available. Sit-down and carryout service. Lunch specials.
In a bite: Asahi has made its mark for many years as a neighborhood source for reliable — if not cutting edge — sushi and other Japanese dishes.
KEY: ★★★★ Extraordinary; ★★★ Excellent;
★★ Very Good; ★ Good;
Zero stars: Poor
Sushi has had a following in Asia for some 1,800 years, even though Americans first “discovered” it during the 1970s when Japanese restaurants specializing in the cuisine started to take root in this country.
Though the concept of eating raw fish wasn’t part of our comfort zone, sushi’s exotic mystique and appealing taste made quick converts. The crowd-pleasing inventiveness and artistry that chefs put into their sushi creations also added to its trendiness.
In recent years, sushi has become more westernized, reinventing itself by introducing new shapes and contemporary ingredients. Witness the arrival of avocado- and cucumber-filled California rolls and a roll made with lobster salad and mayonnaise.
Sushi restaurants are fully vested players in today’s dining scene.
Locally, Asahi, an unpretentious storefront eatery in a Palatine strip mall for the past 15 years, has made sushi a focus. It offers a broad selection of traditional and updated specialty maki rolls (50 in all) as well as 26 different sushi items served nigiri-style atop a small mound of rice, or sashimi-style, minus the rice.
The small place accommodates 32 diners at tables and booths plus seven at the sushi bar, a choice spot to sit because of the bird’s-eye view of chefs rapidly engaged in preparing made-to-order meals.
Shrimp tempura, a shareable starter, was done just right. The dish — shrimp, thinly sliced sweet potatoes, green beans and broccoli all lightly battered and quicklydeep-fried — came with a light soy dipping sauce.
Other appetizers included pan-fried dumplings known as gyoza, broiled mussels covered with a fish roe sauce, spring roll with spicy tuna, skewered chicken yakitori with scallions and a teriyaki sauce glaze, among others.
For the main course, my dining partner and I found comfort with a reliable old favorite, Spider Roll, and a new gem, Sun Fire Roll. Each was divided into five tasty pieces. The former featured a crunchy, fried soft-shell crab in sushi rice. The latter, also in sushi rice, turned out to be an easy-to-like roll with mildly sauced barbecue eel, spicy crab and lettuce. Small side dishes of sliced cucumbers in a sesame dressing complemented the meal.
Various other available entrees, generally priced from $10 to $30, included salmon, beef, chicken and shrimp teriyaki with assorted vegetables and combinations of sushi and sashimi, one of which was a vegetarian offering. Tonkatsu, deep-fried breaded pork cutlet, is another main-course option.
On the sushi section of the menu, the sake (salmon) and hamachi (yellowtail tuna) looked inviting. So did the raw tako (octopus), which proved tender and chewy at the same time and thoroughly delicious.
Desserts are no biggie and lean toward ice cream (green tea and red bean) and mochi (ice cream encased in sticky rice).
A limited selection of wine, Japanese and domestic beer and hot and cold sake is available as well as tea and soft drinks.
Asahi’s chefs are skillful craftsmen, although their food presentation often lacks flair. Where’s the wow factor?
Similarly, the restaurant’s service is efficient but basic. Napkins are paper, no heated towels are presented upon our arrival and any water required will come only upon request. The decor, too, while serviceable bears a mature patina that’s starting to show its age.
Thomas Witom is a local free-lance writer.