Published March 06. 2014 4:00AM
A look at Osaka's storefront in East Lyme doesn't inspire much. It's part of a plaza of equally common-looking businesses, and Osaka's name only intrigues the casual passerby. Step inside, though, and you'll quickly forget the humdrum views from Flanders Road.
Creatively decorated and intimately lit - think bamboo installations, chic dinnerware and modern stone accents - Osaka bills itself as a Japanese steakhouse, but the menu and decor reveal a wider potential culinary experience. Alongside an expansive sushi menu and Japanese standbys, Korean barbecue dishes make things interesting. Hibachi stations and seating are also available for the dinner-as-entertainment crowd.
Of course, one needn't order up live hibachi to enjoy it, and a lunchtime sampling of shrimp hibachi ($12) proved generous and tasty. Preceded by a wonderful miso soup - a concoction slightly smokier than others I've tried - this dish included an ample heap of sticky rice, veggies and shrimp. According to the menu, a salad should have also arrived with the soup, but none appeared on a recent visit. Not a big deal, as we were in no risk of going hungry, thanks to two earlier appetizers: the delicious vegetable spring rolls (six for $5) and the doubly delightful gyoza (beef-vegetable dumplings; six for $5). Both items are lightly fried, but only just enough to lock in and amplify the flavor of the goodies within them.
Meanwhile, if you DO like a little more presentation with your meal, consider the Hot Stone B.B. Rice ($12 at lunch), a Korean dish that arrives table-side in a steaming hot stone bowl, an egg sizzling atop a mountain of seasoned vegetables, beef and sesame-oiled rice. Our waiter politely inquired if we knew what to do with this cauldron of tastiness; we did not. With that, he expertly mixed the egg into the rest, with the addition of the dish's accompanying spicy sauce (not terribly hot, with a little sweetness). When he was through, I was quite jealous of the choice of my lunch partner, who reveled in showing me the crispy bits of rice he'd mined from the bottom of the stone dish. Crispy bits and fused ingredients alike were quite satisfying and very filling. I found the barbecue flavor of the dish to be a little too heavy - more liquid-smoky-tasting than peppery - but my companion assured me I was dead wrong.
Which explains why he loved the Spicy Pork ($19) I brought home for dinner, and I gave it an OK. Paired with sticky rice, veggies, miso soup, and salad (with a fabulous ginger dressing), the main attraction was nice and spicy, the pork tender amid its accompanying strands of sauteed onion. But for me the overall barbecue flavor got in the way of an otherwise good dish.
Not a problem when you've got the agedashi tofu appetizer to keep you busy. For $6, we received 10 sizeable cubes of breaded, lightly fried tofu with a terrific sweet soy sauce. The flavorful breading - almost like a French fry flavor - provided a nice structure to the tofu, which too often suffers from bland treatment by lesser chefs.
Paired with the cucumber salad appetizer ($5) - a mixture of julienned cucumbers, carrot strips and sprouts dressed in pungent ponzu sauce and sesame oil - I could only do minor damage on that evening's order of Yaki Udon with chicken ($12). These Japanese stir fried noodles are thicker than their Chinese counterparts, and seasoned with an intriguing spice blend that offered notes of cinnamon, citrus and ginger. The toothy noodles and slice of chicken took on those flavors well and made for delicious leftovers the next day. Two people could be quite filled with this dish alone.
We were not able to fit any sushi rolls into our tastings - we might've exploded if we did - although we've selected a handful we'd like to try, including one item off the "cooked" rolls list dubbed the Mango Tango ($12), which the menu describes as a mix of shrimp tempura, cucumber, apple, mango and seasonal fruits. Such ingenuity is the name of the game at Osaka, so whether you're hankering for classic Japanese fare or something more exotic, it seems the chefs stand ready to entertain the adventurous eater.