[Sidebar] March 16 - 23, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Ran Zan

Noodling at the sushi bar

by Johnette Rodriguez

1084 Hope St., Providence, 276-7574
Open for lunch Tues-Fri, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Dinner, Sun 5-9 p.m.; Mon-Thurs, 5-9:30 p.m.
Fri-Sat, 5-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
No access

Going to a Japanese restaurant, especially one that offers sushi, can be taxing for Geminis like myself; So many choices, so many decisions. But the college students and neighborhood regulars at Ran Zan have already found their favorites on the menu of this year-old eatery, and they stick by them.

From a list of 20 appetizers, one RISD student exclaimed over the ohitashi, spinach topped with shaved dry bonito ($2.75). Another touted the nutritional virtues of soybeans as she described her recent addiction to edamame, fresh green soybeans, boiled and salted ($2.75). And all around us, small orders of tempura ($4.75) floated by -- light batter-fried shrimp balanced atop a few similarly prepared vegetables.

Most intriguing to us, however, was the ship of sashimi and sushi that sailed onto the next table, a chef's choice ensemble called arashi yama ($29.50). The wide decks of a three-foot-long wooden model of a fishing boat held approximately a dozen selections of nigiri-sushi , slices of fish or seafood atop a leaf-shaped portion of vinegared rice; sashimi, the thicker-cut pieces of raw fish that everyone associates with the term sushi; and maki, the rice-and-friends rolled in sheets of nori (seaweed) and sliced into colorful rounds.

We couldn't resist the fanciful dragon roll ($7), an elaborate maki with grilled eel and cucumber wrapped in nori, rice and finally slivers of avocado. Though sliced into eight rounds, the roll is left standing, slightly curved, with a garnish of cross-cut octopus tentacle for a three-eyed effect and a tiny bit of carrot for horns. This dragon was every bit as tasty as it was fun to look at.

The other maki we chose was also new to us, a tempura roll ($5), with one shrimp tempura smothered in a spicy hot sauce and tucked inside the rice and seaweed layers. Both maki were accompanied by the traditional palate-cleansing pickled ginger and the head-clearing green wasabi , a very hot Japanese mustard paste -- just a little dab'll do ya.

As a main dish, Bill ordered the chicken teriyaki ($9.50), served with rice and a soup or salad. After much hemming and hawing over tempura dinners, udon noodle combos and katsu entrees (pork, chicken or fish breaded and deep-fried), I settled on vegetable yakisoba ($6.50) along with agedashi dofu ($3.50), large chunks of crisp-fried tofu in a gingery soy sauce.

The broiled chicken chunks in a tangy, sesame teriyaki sauce were accompanied by broccoli spears and carrot chunks, which also responded nicely to the sauce. The chicken itself was tender and delicious.

The buckwheat noodles (soba) in my entree were sauteed with cabbage, broccoli and onions in a very flavorful and slightly hot sauce. The tofu was a great sidekick to the noodles, but if you're looking for a strictly vegetarian dish, ask them to leave off the garnish of dry bonito.

Bill and I both opted for miso soup over a lettuce salad, and it was a lovely version of this warming broth. Made with a light-colored miso (a fermented barley, rice or soybean paste), it seemed more the Japanese equivalent of chicken broth in contrast to the darker, beefier misos we've encountered in the past.

Sweet desserts are not common in Japan -- meals often end there with pickles instead -- but in deference to American appetites, many Japanese restaurants offer ginger and/or green tea ice cream. On the evening of our visit, only the green tea was available, so we split a serving ($2.25). It was very creamy, with a taste familiar to anyone hooked on the iced Arizona versions, but just barely sweet.

The decor at Ran Zan (a mountain in Kyoto as well as an alternate name for the arashi yama described above) is as simple and tasteful as its food: Ivory walls, light wood tables and white globe lights are accented by nautical rope which connects the beams above the sushi bar and forms a swishing curtain for the kitchen. A few green plants, rice-paper screens across the street windows and prints of familiar wood blocks or ink brush paintings complete the scene.

Ran Zan holds approximately 35 people in its tiny space, and there are no reservations. So, if you go on a weekend, go early, or the line may snake up the sidewalk. But such queues are like a herd of trucks in the parking lot of a roadside diner -- a sign that what's inside must be worth the wait. And at Ran Zan, that's true indeed.

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