310 N Carrollton Ave
New Orleans, LA 70119
Napoleon's Rating - ***/*****
People who like to eat at Japanese restaurants can practically order by rote at many local sushi bars, where menus often follow predictable patterns. Little Tokyo serves all the expected dishes, but one thing that helps the Mid-City location of this small, local chain stand apart is how far the menu continues beyond the standards. There are a few hibachi tables here for the combination grilled meals led by theatrical, knife-juggling chefs, a presentation which is especially popular with kids. But the main attraction for me is the wide-ranging sushi and sashimi selection and inventive specials.
It seems hard to believe today, but this large restaurant space in the Mid-City Centre building was once a location of the Shoney's chain, though just before Katrina it was the French-style steakhouse Chateaubriand. Today, the gleaming sushi bar itself is the focal point for the room, and it's a glassed-in, quiet space with a sparse but attractive décor. The main dining room is dominated by the hibachi tables, while a smaller dining room has more conventional seating. There is also a separate bar area, though few people tend to dine there.
The wait staff is friendly enough, though they could do a better job of explaining uncommon items or giving some tips on navigating the lengthy menu and various specials sheets. Also, if you order a number of dishes, be sure to specify if you want them in a particular order. Otherwise, they tend to arrive all at once.
Sushi bar salads make great first courses here, though most are served in such large portions that you need to split them with at least one other person if you intend to eat much more. For instance, the tuna poke salad, made with raw cubes of tuna, roe, sliced cucumber and seaweed, is large enough to be a modest lunch. For something a little more manageable, try the nuta, with slices of barely-seared, tataki-style tuna, a thick, sweet sauce and a fresh hash of very thin cucumber ribbons. One unusual choice is the baby octopus appetizer. They are served whole, and have an intriguing texture mixing chewy tentacles and a soft, taut body, all carrying a distinct marine flavor. I'd skip the baked seafood appetizers, which tend to pile on the cheese, mayor and imitation crabmeat like casseroles.
Little Tokyo has a large, well-stocked sushi bar serves some well-executed rolls and often features fish not commonly seen at local restaurants. I really don't know why so many Japanese restaurants think naming rolls for terms from the Katrina disaster is appetizing, but Little Tokyo's "FEMA roll" is nonetheless a very good creation, combining salmon, snow crab, asparagus and avocado over a slab of very spicy tuna. The Causeway roll, named for the address of Little Tokyo's first location, has crunchy, tempura-speckled softshell crab legs reaching out from the thick roll with snow crab and asparagus. The tropical roll has alternating layers of salmon and fresh, sweet mango, and a blue crab mango roll wrapped in rice paper was light and refreshing. The "immigrant roll" was bland despite the promised jalapeno roe in the salmon and avocado filling and the barbecued yellowtail roll was dried out.
People who don't like sushi can find plenty to eat here. Dishes like the steak and tempura combination dinner comes with a whole assortment of sides and sauces in individual bowls. The chicken katsu follows a similar format, though the breaded, fried cutlet tasted plain and a dunk in its thick, vinegary side sauce didn't improve it much. There are some unusual lunch specials, like the sukiyaki po-boy, in which the shredded, Japanese-style stewed beef stands in for New Orleans-style roast beef.
There is a full bar, along with a decent selection of sake and familiar Japanese-brand beers.
Prices are moderate and in line with expectations. Larger special rolls will run between $8 and $12, while most salads and appetizers are below $8. Watch out for the prices on some of the special fish selections from the sushi bar, which can be very dear. Lunch is a very good bargain, with plenty of specials well under $10.
Once considered highly exotic fare, sushi is so common now it turns up at the deli of most large supermarkets. One reason I like Little Tokyo, however, is the way its huge and ever-changing menu restores some mystique to this most elegant cuisine. There always seem to be surprises and new selections here. While this isn't the finest sushi house in town, Little Tokyo has enough variety between the rolls, the sashimi, the kitchen and the hibachi tables to offer something for everyone.