It's been more than 10 years since I was in Tokyo, but some things about a place stick with you. Because my memories tend to be linked directly to my taste buds, what I remember most vividly about Japan is the incredibly fresh fish, the many and surprising uses of rice paste, and bento boxes — for starters. You can't beat those neat little partitioned boxes filled with rice, sushi and salad for a handy, healthy — not to mention very organized — lunch. I also could never forget the ubiquitous neon lights and techno music turning up in the strangest places. Or the intense crowds. Take a ride on a Tokyo subway, complete with white-gloved subway packers, and you'll never complain about Short Pump on the weekends again.
Tucked into a newish strip mall off Hull Street Road in Midlothian, Tenjinmura manages to call up an authentic Tokyo hot spot in every way but the last: The most immediate impression both times I visit is how empty the place is. At lunch, two other parties dine while I'm there, but not at the same time. At dinner on a Saturday night, we have the restaurant to ourselves until one other couple comes in.
Bringing the lack of clientele into sharp relief is the clubby ambiance. The strange blue overhead lights cast an aquarium-like glow around the main dining room — there's a separate hibachi area — and the neon specials signs, Christmas lights and pulsating techno add to the impression that you're in an underwater nightclub. Aside from the audiovisuals, the interiors are nicely appointed with blond wood and cozy booths upholstered in black and tan fabric printed with Japanese characters.
If you can get past the emptiness and unconventional atmosphere, Tenjinmura has some truly outstanding offerings. At lunch, the Japanese mainstay bento box is a great value at $12.95. The miso soup is a perfectly balanced mushroomy broth with a hint of heat and the crunch of scallion. The shrimp shumai are tender and tasty, and the classic ginger-carrot dressing on the salad does not disappoint. The chicken teriyaki entrAce and California roll are nothing special, but all in all, the bento box is generous and satisfying.
Another highlight, and what you hope to find at any sushi joint worth its sashimi, is insanely fresh fish. Just about all of the seafood at Tenjinmura, in the many forms it takes, lives up to that standard. The yellowtail sushi is melt-in-your-mouth sweet and rivals that of any big-city sushi bar, including aforementioned experiences in Tokyo. The calamari special is underwhelming with its greasy, undercooked breading, but the squid itself is beautiful and surprisingly un-chewy. Tenjinmura's maki line-up includes a nice assortment of special rolls including the crowd-pleasing Godzilla, with spicy tuna and cream cheese, deep fried and topped with a spicy sauce.
For appetizers, the crab balls are huge, orange-sized fried dumplings sadly filled with the imitation stuff and a mayonnaise-y sauce. The harumaki, though — Japanese spring rolls filled with shrimp and vegetables — are lightly fried and delicate.
But the true draw at Tenjinmura is the hibachi. Despite having the hibachi table to ourselves on a Saturday night, the experience feels like dinner theater. The chef is truly talented with his spatulas and tongs. Tossing raw eggs in the air and catching them in his jacket pocket, and building a flaming volcano out of onions are just a couple of his tricks.
The edible result is even better than the theatrics. Living up to the quality of the sushi, the scallops are sweet and tender and not a moment overcooked. The filet is equally outstanding and inspires a fork war over the last few tender morsels. The tuna and New York strip aren't quite as memorable, but still tasty. The lobster is disappointingly tough. Playing a strong supporting role in the feast is the fabulous seasoned rice, tossed with a variety of veggies and sauces.
We can hardly think of dessert after our hibachi gluttony, but I can't pass up the green tea mochi ice cream — little balls of green tea ice cream covered in a soft rice dough. Sounds weird, but trust me, there's a reason these Japanese treats have found their way to the freezer section of Trader Joe's.
Tenjinmura may be out of the way for most of us, but the drive is worth it. Did I mention the hot sake? S
12020 Southshore Pointe Drive, Midlothian
Lunch: Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Sunday, noon-3 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 5-10p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m.
All-you-can-eat sushi buffet: Sundays-Thursdays