Restaurant Review: Akai Hana

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Sushi and sashimi

After 30 years, Akai Hana continues to write the book on sushi in Columbus.

My sushi-crazy sonand I have visited Akai Hana many times over the years. So I admit to a bit of bias when I say that Akai Hana is my happy place. And judging from the cheerful crowds who pack the place nightly, it's a happy place for a lot of people. This is so for many reasons-the kindly service, the pretty blonde-wood dining room, the fact that the sushi chefs will remember your name and what you like-but mostly because of the very good sushi.

It must be said (given that we are about 500 miles from the nearest ocean) that no Columbus sushi bar regularly obtains raw fish in that just-caught, sparkling condition that can make sushi magical, a la "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." Akai Hana's sushi may not be truly magical, but when it comes to raw fish and other things that make up standard sushi-bar fare, no one in Columbus does it better.

All the basic sashimi, nigiri sushi and rolls are here, along with the requisite selection of rolls invented in America like "Dragon" or "Buckeye." I am old-school when it comes to sushi-to me, the classics are best. And so a simple piece of buttery hamachi (yellowtail) on a thumb of sweetened, vinegared rice is as good as it gets. Or for rolls, tuna or chopped hamachi made fragrant with green bits of scallion (negi-hamachi) are wonderful. This is not to denigrate the 100 or so other things the sushi chefs do well, from the comforting California roll to the sweet piece of barbecued eel called unagi.

Even if you sit at the sushi bar you will be handed the substantial book that is Akai Hana's menu, which includes much more than just sushi, such as teriyaki, donburi (a rice bowl with various toppings), noodle dishes and even Korean food, if you are so inclined. In addition to visits with my son over the past few years, I ate here three times recently in service to the community (this reviewer gig is tough) but couldn't cover more than one-fifth of the huge menu.

Aside from sushi, here are some recommendations and a few things to avoid. I like the vegetable tempura, usually a slice of lotus root, a perfumy shisho leaf and pieces of yam, broccoli, onion and zucchini. The veggies are done to an almost greaseless turn, still crisp. Vegetable and shrimp tempura are served as appetizers ($6 and $9.50) or combined as an entrée ($12.50) with miso soup (bland, but serviceable), rice and that ubiquitous little cup of iceberg with sweet-salty sesame dressing (awful, skip it). Vegetable lovers will be pleased with a range of small-plate options, including the standard edamame ($5), three tofu preparations, a nice assortment of pickled vegetables or oshinko ($5.25) and my favorite, yaki nasu. These hot sautéed chunks of eggplant are prepared in a gingery ponzu sauce and topped with shaved bonito-the dried fish shavings squirm about like tiny angry worms when in contact with the hot eggplant, which is hilarious fun for me and very little kids ($6.75).

Entrees of note include chicken, salmon and mixed seafood (shrimp, scallops, mussels and squid; $20.75) in a sweet and viscous teriyaki sauce. Or better yet, the various broth-based combinations like suki yaki (beef and vegetables, $23.95, enough for two) and yose nabe, a nice collection of fish and seafood in a broth with noodles and veggies ($25.95, also enough for two). Traditional Japanese katsu are cutlets of chicken, pork or shrimp breaded with panko and fried crisp ($17.50–$19.95). It is simple food, but tasty and executed well. A too-sweet tonkatsu sauce that comes with katsu is not helpful, but a squeeze of lemon is nice.

To me, the best entrees are the noodle dishes. Tempura udon (wheat) or soba (buckwheat, and more interesting) in broth topped with shrimp tempura is very well done, as is the vegetable tempura version. Ramen here is not as memorable as the ramen-specific places in town-it's a little bland-but sansai udon or soba topped with spinach is a mild but lovely dish of food (noodle dishes are $11.95; $14.95 with seafood). One more interesting choice is una ju donburi, or rice topped with slices of barbecued eel ($21).

One of the best values at Akai Hana, and a way to try several different things, is to order the lunch or dinner boxes, which combine various items like sushi, salads, tempura, teriyaki, katsu and the like. They range from $17.50 to a huge, weekend-only special at $26.50. Boxes are cheaper at lunch.

There is a short list of Korean standards like bibimbap ($17.95) and the marinated grilled beef called bulgogi ($18.50). The last pages of the menu are in Japanese. I was told that it largely mimics the English menu but isn't exactly the same.

Finally, I would be remiss if didn't comment on the service. Yes, servers and sushi chefs are efficient, helpful and all that, but the best description of the folks who work at Akai Hana (many of whom have been there for years) is that they are just plain nice. It's no happy accident, then, that we keep going back.

Akai Hana

1173 Old Henderson Rd., Northwest Side, 614-451-5411,

Hours: 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m., 5 p.m.–10 p.m. Mon–Sat; 5 p.m.–9 p.m. Sun

Price Range: $5–$12 for appetizers, $11–$30 for entrees

Reservations: Accepted by phone only

In Short: This popular Northwest Side restaurant offers an extensive menu of classic Japanese foods, but is best known for its excellent sushi.

Three Stars (Excellent)