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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

A Cut Above the Rest

Hama hits its stride

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For much of its first decade in business, Hama, the self-described purveyor of “Sushi on the North Shore,” felt somewhat like an outpost—the only Japanese restaurant for miles around. Even though the competition has increased over the years, Hama still stands out as one of the very best. The decor of the sushi bar and dining rooms hasn’t changed since opening day, but everything still looks good. Curved wood panels suspended from the ceiling provide the feel of a gentle wave; furnishings are simple and of light wood. With so many hard surfaces, the acoustics are remarkably good. Though Hama’s menu charts a Japanese course, there are occasional Western surprises. The lunch salad served in a bento bowl is a perfect example. Most U.S. Japanese restaurants slavishly follow the Benihana example of iceberg lettuce and the same ginger dressing. Hama instead uses field greens and grape tomatoes, and the dressing adds more of a sesame flavor.

For the best—and more unusual—types of sushi, refer to the list of daily specials. If you’re lucky, there will be Kona blue kampachi ($7), an environmentally sustainable fish raised in Hawaii. The serving is two pieces of nigiri sushi. The flesh is white and has a flavor similar to the far more common hamachi. What is different is the luxuriant buttery texture that shares an affinity with toro. Beware, though: It does tend to sell out.

Another treat from the sushi bar is ebi. These shrimp are larger and have more flavor than usual. Try it in the seafood sunomono ($7), a salad of thin sliced cucumbers dressed with sweet vinegar. It can be ordered with shrimp, crab, octopus or all of the above.

The most pleasurable experience at Hama comes from weaving through the sushis and appetizers. You can pass on the teriyakis and tempuras, which are merely commonplace.

The tempura batter even qualifies as a bit gummy; not crisp, as it should be. Instead, wander over to the maki sushi listings, which include some of the best I’ve had in some time. You’ll find a blackened lobster roll ($12), a careful preparation of succulent lobster with finely minced cucumber and scallion. There is just a hint of the blackening spice in this sea weed-wrapped roll. Gyoza ($7) is a meaty counterpoint to this dish. Six fried dumplings with a minced beef filling are cleverly served over shredded cabbage to allow any excess oil to drain away. Another item that instantly brings Hama to mind is the grilled squid. The whole body of a squid, minus the tentacles, is marinated in soy sauce and sake before it is char-grilled and again served over a bed of cabbage. The squid is fine as is, but it does come with a side of masago sauce, which is orange smelt roe. This sauce could be called a masago aioli.

If you must have tempura and teriyaki, the best options are the lunch box ($11.95) or one of the combination dinners ($21-$48). The lunch is served in a lacquered box complete with salad, rice, miso soup, fresh fruit and a choice of two items. Gyoza, sushi and sashimi are among the options.

The setting at Hama still looks good and, best of all, the kitchen staff and the sushi chefs are hitting their stride. The discreet and competent service also merits notice. Though it now has additional competition in the North Shore, Hama remains a cut above the rest.

RESTAURANT HAMA 333 W. Brown Deer Road (414) 352-5051 $$-$$$ Credit Cards: All major Smoke Free Handicap Access: Yes

Restaurant Hama | Photos by Jessica Kaminski