All That and a Bowl of Noodles: Fin Japanese Cuisine goes beyond good sushi

All That and a Bowl of Noodles: Fin Japanese Cuisine goes beyond good sushi

1682 Clarkson Road, Chesterfield; 636-536-4228.
Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Dinner 5-9 p.m. Sun.-Thu., 5-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

Fin Japanese Cuisine
Tako yaki...$6.95
Miso ramen...$9.95
Gindara miso...$18.95

Sushi, as we all know, is a cuisine steeped in ritual and tradition. For many of us, though, that "ritual" consists of a snub-nosed pencil and a slip of paper listing the various permutations, followed by a big platter o' fish, a bowlful of soy sauce into which we stir "wasabi" and a series of liberal dunkings and gobblings. None of which conforms in any respect to actual Japanese dining custom.

So it seems at Fin Japanese Cuisine, which opened last fall in a Chesterfield strip mall. The list of sushi on Fin's order slip is so extensive, the descriptions of its basic and specialty rolls so detailed, that you may well never get around to opening the hardbound menu your server hands you. That would be a shame. Inside this menu you'll find dishes — not sushi (and in a few cases not even strictly Japansese) — that make Fin a compelling destination.

The space is attractive, a modern look that doesn't succumb to the too-cool lounge vibe that afflicts so many sushi restaurants. It's big: a long room with the bar along one wall, booths along the other and tables in between. The stone wall behind the bar (if you can ignore the flat-screen TV monitors) and lantern-like light fixtures are among the highlights of the décor.

Paul Kulkanjanatorn is Fin's owner and head chef. Though originally from Thailand, he has a long history with Japanese cuisine: When he was a child, his father ran a Japanese restaurant in Thailand. His Thai heritage does make itself apparent here and there on the menu, but he has been working as a sushi chef for the better part of a decade, and if you come to Fin to satisfy a craving for sushi, you won't leave disappointed.

The nigiri sushi is generously portioned and beautifully presented. I especially liked a piece of mackerel cut so the leading silver edge narrowed through the striations of the fish's flesh to a tapered point, and a piece of salmon adorned with a crescent of raw onion held in place by a ribbon of seaweed. The rice was the ideal consistency, neither too loose nor refrigerated into a cold, glutinous lump. On one visit there was but a whisper, if that, of wasabi paste between the rice and the fish — my personal preference — but on another visit the chef had applied it with a slightly heavier hand.

From the selection of specialty maki, I sampled the roll named for the restaurant. This "Fin Roll" has as its core a blend like what you find in a spicy tuna roll. This is wrapped in a layer of rice and then seaweed. The exterior is rolled in tempura batter and then fried. The finished roll is topped with thin strands of shiso leaf and served with tart ponzu sauce. I liked the contrast between the shiso, tuna and sauce, but the crunch and heat added by its cooking added little of interest.

I've barely scratched the surface of the sushi menu, but be assured it will appeal both to those who love extravagant "Americanized" sushi rolls and those who prefer to indulge themselves in the simple (and, sadly, overfished to the point of possible extinction) elegance of luscious otoro. But don't ignore what else Fin offers. At the very least, order yourself an appetizer from the hardbound menu. Yes, there are mainstays like shrimp or vegetable tempura and gyoza, but there's also tako yaki.

I'd never eaten this before: a bite-size piece of octopus battered and then fried. Though this sounds like just another tempura preparation, the effect is different. The coating is thick enough that while the exterior is brown and crisp, the batter beneath the surface is nearly liquid. On the side, for dipping, is the soy sauce-based condiment katsu, which imparts a welcome tangy, lightly peppery note.

As with the appetizers, entrées include stalwarts (chicken or salmon teriyaki; seared scallops) and surprises. Gindara miso is described on the menu as grilled black cod (also known as sablefish), but the piece of fish on my plate bore the rich brown color of a good pan-searing, rather than grill marks. At any rate it was delicious piece of fish, fork-tender and barely opaque at the center. Miso's distinct flavor provided a strong, though not overwhelming, accent.

The seafood hot pot shows Kulkanjanatorn's Southeast Asian roots. The broth is the star, light in color, with a bright flavor — a hint of lemongrass, perhaps; certainly fresh lime — and a definite kick not unlike Thai tom yum soup. In this swim salmon (eat this quickly, before the flesh overcooks), squid, scallop and shrimp. If no one piece of seafood stands out, that is only because each seemed to complement the broth equally well.

Indeed, soup, not sushi, might be the first reason to visit Fin. Local fans of Japanese cuisine have long — and rightfully — bemoaned the lack of a true ramen joint as you would find in, say, Los Angeles (not to mention, um, Tokyo), with great strands of hand-pulled noodles dropped and giant cauldrons of boiling broth that taste like the essence of pork. I can't promise that Fin will fulfill this need, but it serves a pretty damn good bowl of ramen.

In fact, several different ramen dishes are available. I tried the miso variety, which served a tangle of medium-thin miso-based ramen noodles in a richly porky broth along with chushu pork (thin slices of pork rolled into one large chunk and braised), spinach, sliced hard-boiled egg, bamboo shoots, green onion and fishcakes. (Other varieties include miso ramen spiked with tom yum seasonings and many of the same ingredients with soy sauce-based ramen noodles.) Anyone who thinks ramen is nothing more than five-for-a-buck instant noodles must try this concoction, a riot of flavors and textures, all of it held together by a broth that, like the best pho or tom yum, you could happily drink by itself. That these noodle dishes are tucked toward the back of the hardbound menu is unfortunate, given how easy it is to skim these pages before returning to the slip of paper with your sushi order.

Not that you have to skip the sushi. But maybe it's time your own sushi ritual adds a few steps: Open menu, read, consider.

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