For many years, my extended family gathered at Edo Japanese Restaurant for birthday celebrations. The staff would remove the shoji screens between two booths, and we’d spill into other booths to the left and the right of the center two. Love Boats and extra orders of Sakura sauce would crowd the tables, and we’d celebrate and leave with our bellies full of good food and spirits high from good company.
So we were dismayed early this year to find that longtime owner Takeo Higashi had sold the restaurant because of a family illness. A devoted server bought it, and she had a hard time finding a cook who could duplicate Higashi’s recipes. After our last lunch visit, back in April, we sadly concluded that we wouldn’t be going back, and suspected that the restaurant’s days were numbered.
But wait! In May, two new owners came in, and the good news is that the old Edo is back — almost. The bad news is that they’re playing music that, I swear, includes a Japanese version of Donny Osmond’s “Puppy Love.” More on that, but first to the food.
The core menu remains the same. A few items, mostly bigger sushi rolls, have been added. Lunch service has ended for now, but the restaurant is now open for Sunday dinner (it wasn’t for years).
The tempura has long been my favorite in the city, the lightest and crispiest around. It’s as good as ever, and served generously. The dinner order comes with four or five large shrimp, sweet potatoes, onions, cauliflower and maybe a vegetable or two that I’ve forgotten.
But here’s something you’ve got to try, if you’re willing to put aside all claim to authenticity (and for this, you should): cheese tempura. I resisted for years, partly because the kids in my family told me it tasted like deep-fried Velveeta (a good thing to them). There’s no Velveeta here, but instead a medium cheddar, cut into thick rectangles, tempura-battered and fried.
Here’s what happens. The cheese melts, so it pulls away from the top crust and puddles a bit at the bottom, creating two textural delights. There’s a lacy, crisp layer of crust at the top that hovers just over the cheese, and a thicker, crunchy layer at the bottom, formed from the melding of pooled cheese and fried batter. It’s delicious. You’ll never look at a fried cheese stick the same way.
The sushi is fresh, and with the exception of the new rolls, such as the deep-fried volcano roll, the cheesy roll and others at the end of the menu, pretty simple. There are the California roll, avocado roll, crunchy roll and so on. The oshinko roll is nice, a small roll filled only with pickled radish, and the Washington roll with apple and crab was delicious.
There are three items at Edo that have long been my favorites: the ginger salad dressing, the clear soup and the Sakura sauce on anything. All are close to the original versions, but none exactly hit the mark. Still, they’re close enough that if you haven’t eaten them in the past, you’ll think they taste fine. And if you have, you’ll know that they’re only barely off.
The salad dressing tastes just as it always has, but it was watery. I told the server, who said he was sorry, but he made no offer to bring another salad. I believe that the lettuce was wet, but whether that was a problem or the dressing was actually watery will remain a mystery.
The soup looked like the old soup, a clear broth with a few fried onions and chopped green onions floating in it. And it tasted very close, yet not quite as flavorful as it used to be (though a far cry from the pitiful imitation we were served in April). It was OK, but not the same comforting bowl I’d eaten for years.
To the Sakura sauce: First, this is an extraordinarily rich and thick sauce, something akin to what you might expect in a Creole or French restaurant, not in a Japanese one. It’s buttery and decadent, equally delicious on shrimp, chicken (which was previously offered on the lunch menu and would be welcomed to the dinner menu), broccoli or rice.
I have no doubt that the recipe the kitchen uses today is the same one it’s used for years. But I also suspect that Higashi adjusted his sauce as an experienced cook will do, adding a pinch of this or a dash of that. The sauce is still delicious, but it doesn’t taste exactly the same.
We tried it at one visit with broccoli, and it was perfectly smooth, the texture of a nice hollandaise. On another visit I ordered Sakura shrimp, and the sauce had broken.
I’ve had it this way many times over the years, though, and I think it might happen when it’s added to a hot grill with the shrimp, which are butterflied and cooked flat so they brown a bit on the bottom.
It doesn’t affect the flavor of the Sakura.
The interior of the restaurant looks the same, old-fashioned and simple with shoji screens and temple flags. The new music is a peculiar choice, as it sounds like American lounge music performed by Japanese singers (and, yes, “Puppy Love” is really one of the songs).
Something traditional, more relaxing, would be nice.
If you’ve stayed away from Edo because of the ownership change, go back. There’s no reason to think that with a little more time and a bit more confidence in the kitchen, new owners Leng Khoun and Leon Nguyen won’t be able to carry on Higashi’s legacy of a simple Japanese restaurant that customers feel is a special place.
Edo Japanese Restaurant
Address: 4792 Summer
Hours: Opens 5-9 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Reviewer’s choice: Love Boat; Sakura shrimp; cheese tempura; tempura dinner; Washington roll; cheesy roll
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars