Nothing at Ninja equals the kick of a 6.76-oz. Ramune, a century-old Japanese soda that, though the Japanese seem reluctant to admit it (they call it "lemon-lime"), tastes exactly like Wrigley's Juicy Fruit gum. The trustworthy flavor doesn't betray the soda's sinister side, unlike a warning on the label that calls for adult supervision. Ninja's waitresses assist in opening the Ramune even for customers who are old enough to remember life without California rolls. It goes down like this: Using a blunt sword popped off the bottle's top, you push down on a vacuum seal. The assault activates a tidal wave of bottle-rocking fizz as a heretofore hidden clear glass marble fires down into the bottle's neck, which -- due to two eye-socket indentations and an ominous narrowing just above the bottle's midline -- looks like an alien's hollow head. You can knock the marble around the alien's head with a straw, you can save the bottle as a novelty art piece and/or you can attempt to free the marble with the nearest sledgehammer.
If anything competes with the Ramune, it's Ninja's beef. I chose the yakiniku appetizer on a whim, to replace an order of pork gyoza dumplings overrun with the bitterness of garlic past its prime. It was more than a fair trade: With still-crisp carrots, bean sprouts and snap peas, and beef sliced to mere shavings in a sweet, garlicky sauce, Ninja's yakiniku is an exemplary stir-fry. Thin-sliced coils of beef reappear on the edible color wheel of a sukiyaki entree; enoki mushrooms, glass noodles, tofu the texture of fine cloth, cabbage and various other precisely placed vegetables come arranged in a shallow stone bowl with the beef and its salty, sake-sweetened broth.
For just short of a decade, Ninja shacked up in a Jeannette Street frame house with barely enough room to shrug. Ninja was and is primarily a sushi house, as demonstrated by its outstretched sushi bar. The rest of the new building on Oak Street -- from its boxy aluminum-sided exterior to its dark, first-floor bar/waiting room to its bright, slick-surfaced upstairs dining room -- is all about function. Customers who demand that a Japanese restaurant's aesthetics equal the painstaking beauty of its dishes will be disappointed. Unless, of course, there's the usual two-hour wait at Jacques-Imo's down the street, in which case swells of hungry diners of all aesthetic persuasions count their blessings that Ninja moved into the neighborhood.
I'm willing to sacrifice pretty buildings for just about any food, as long as the food meets the ante. In Ninja's case, many sushi and sashimi selections foundered. The disappointing Ninja Roll, wider than my palm and containing at least seven different fillers, was an embarrassment of riches in quantity; its slimy asparagus was an embarrassment in quality. The Special Eel Roll tasted both bland and burnt. An order of Chirashi Sushi, slices of raw and cured fish scattered over a bowl of vinegared rice, contained several unchewable pieces, many of which tasted more like fish smells than sashimi should.
A special snow crab-filled Goma Miso Roll with peppery miso sauce was more respectable, as were the rectangular slices of box sushi made with pristine yellowtail and snow crab. A terrific order of salmon nigiri sushi was so buttery one night that it stuck to my chopsticks, and I gladly would pay for a lagniappe I received at the sushi bar: creamy cucumber salad made with seaweed and sesame seeds. The Devil's Roll is as much a game as it is food, since surviving its slathering of "very very hot" yellow mustard requires deep-breathing exercises of Lamaze intensity.
Like going to the movies or the beach, going out for sushi is a regular event in 21st century families from Denver to Amsterdam, and its popularity spurs many Japanese restaurateurs to expand their menu selections. Ninja's non-sushi selections swell over three pages, and the carefree waitstaff complements the come-one-and-all atmosphere. Though its accompanying vegetable tempura was greasy and lackluster, a bowl of nutty, firm soba noodles in lucent broth is universally appealing. And if there's one thing toddlers like more than edamame, it must be ice cream wrapped in rice pastry they can eat with their fingers (mochi).
Reading that such dishes -- along with the aforementioned beef and soda -- highlighted my trips to Ninja will not please its hordes of gung-ho sushi fans, who tend to be rather ninja-like in their allegiance to the place. But it's a different, raw-fish-teeming world from the one that existed when Ninja opened in the early 1990s. Today, Japanese restaurants threaten to outnumber McDonald's franchises in Orleans Parish. With that kind of competition, all sushi lovers get to be choosy.
- Cheryl Gerber
- NINJA sushi maker Reiko Kennison serves customers rainbow sushi at the bar of the Carrollton restaurant.