One of the running jokes in National Public Radio's "Prairie Home Companion" is the reticence of the folks of Lake Wobegone. In the taciturn Wobegone World there seem to be no superlatives, only "pretty goods" and "not so bads." There is not, you betcha, a sushi bar in Lake Wobegone. For obvious reasons.
But if the Marriott Rivercenter's Hanatei were there, "pretty good" and "not so bad" would be about bang-on. The same terminology goes for San Antonio, a city not necessarily known for its reluctance to express an opinion. Hanatei is the kind of place that seems perfectly competent, without inspiring either superlatives or invectives.
Let's start with the appetizer (so-labeled in a menu in which almost everything could be considered appetizers) deep-fried battered homemade crab sticks served with special sauce. The first, and obvious, question is "What in the name of a Norwegian bachelor farmer is a crab stick?"
Answer: Unlike chicken "fingers," which we at least assume contain chicken, crab sticks only look a little like the real thing. (Check them out in the display case at the bar; they're all perfect cylinders — of pollock, or other firm-fleshed white fish — with a red exterior.) Deep fried, they're, well, not so bad, and the presentation that binds them at one end and slices them to that point to emulate a flower, is effective. The special sauce wasn't memorable, however. (Which is to say it didn't even register.) A seaweed with cucumber salad came with two kinds of seaweed, one bright green and crunchy, the other very dark and semi-slimy. Since we are programmed by propaganda to prefer crunchy, that rendition won, but both could have used a little more sesame seed and sesame oil/rice wine vinegar.
Sitting at the bar at a sushi restaurant affords a useful perspective on the skills required to turn out top-notch nigiri sushi and maki; most traditional training obliges the intern to work first with the sushi rice for several months before even touching a piece of fish. The boys behind the bar at Hanatei at least looked the part, and the platter of Nigiri Sushi Deluxe (assorted sliced raw fish on sushi rice, $19.95) that was their first test of skill arrived looking pretty good as well. There were few decorative bells and whistles, but the lozenges of rice were uniform, the fish evenly sliced, and the pickled ginger , abundant. Tuna, salmon, snapper, yellowtail, squid, and shrimp were the featured players, and all were, excuse the unreticent exuberance, exquisitely fresh. The amount of wasabi you add to your shoyu dipping sauce controls the punch it packs. Lake Wobegoners (for whom ketchup is the condiment deluxe) beware.
You can order any of the nigiri sushi separately, of course, and the prices range from $2.50 to $4.50 for a two-piece serving. Those desiring a more exotic alternative, however, might want to lean to the left side of the menu with its classic maki and names such as Dragon, Dinosaur, and Rising Sun. Wrapped in the traditional dried seaweed, the Dragon Maki includes smoked salmon (strangely chewy), flying fish eggs (no bigger than a shotgun pellet and satisfyingly crunchy) and another unfocused sauce, said to be spicy. The overall effect was okay, but not much more. More successful was the Dinosaur Maki with its combination of raw fish and deep fried soft shell crab, despite the find-the-crab desire it inspired. The impressive Rising Sun, at $8.98 the most expensive option by far, featured several pieces of tuna, salmon, and yellowtail over tiny tobiko (the flying fish egg) and rice, and the textural contrast between fish and roe began to get to the essence of the less-is-more sushi art. The advertised eel, however, never put in an appearance, and its smoky qualities might have made an equally intriguing foil for the roe.
The Japanese are often thought of as the ultimate deep fryers, with good reason; tempura batters can be light, crisp, and almost evanescent — a veil of chiffon as opposed the coat of mail that often shrouds, say, shrimp fried in the American manner. Despite a wimpy dipping sauce, Hanatei does a reasonably decent job with its tempura combinations. Our seafood tempura, adorned with a fan of folded paper, contained both salmon (yawn) and shrimp (not bad), as well as an assortment of vegetables including red and yellow bell peppers and asparagus. The accompanying salad of mixed greens with a ginger-inflected dressing was surprisingly effective, though Wobegoners would surely have spurned ginger for fluorescent French.
The Japanese are also thought of as the ultimate arbiters of serving rituals and accouterments, so it seems fair to take pot shots at presentation in a sushi restaurant. Here, Hanatei needs to tighten up a tad. (Though, speaking of ceremonies, the green tea with its toasted rice taste is especially good.) The serving pieces are individually acceptable, but there seems to be no overall concept at work. Ditto with the decor. Lake Wobegone would be rendered speechless — not that you'd necessarily notice.