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Sea-Creature Comfort

Somewhere in hell there's a soft spot for sushi.

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Perhaps a Buddhist monk can find peace and beauty anywhere, even at an intersection on Jefferson Davis Highway. But I am no Buddhist. One of the biggest challenges of food writing in Richmond is figuring out how to express excitement and vitality when describing restaurants located in my version of hell — strip malls along anonymous stretches of big-box store development.

But Roda is, in fact, different. I don't expect it to make any "best of" lists this year (stay tuned for our annual "State of the Plate" cover story March 28), but it's well worth a visit if you ever make the journey to Virginia Center Commons to shop or see a flick.

After the anxiety of locating street addresses in a maze of car-choked malls, we stepped into the dim dining room and found a haven. The granite coolness of the interior creates a sharp departure from the chaotic world outside. A glass wall serves the dual purpose of displaying a soothing Zen rock garden while dividing the teppanyaki grillroom from the sushi bar and its adjoining banquettes. Against the back wall, a stone waterfall trickles tranquility beside the sushi bar, where the large platters of specialty rolls and sashimi are assembled into vibrant palettes of taste.

The server's confident knowledge of what was freshest steered our decisions into previously uncharted waters, and we decided on a number of unusual rolls and untried species of fish. Our usual favorites — the unagi (smoked eel), sake (salmon) and amaebi (sweet shrimp) — were all good here, but at our server's suggestion, we substituted bonito for the tuna we normally order and found it more flavorful and fresher than one imagines fish can be.

Early in the meal my sushi-loving wife shook her head and looked up with concern, saying, "It's so delicious, I'm afraid of getting full." The only item that gave me pause was the suggested uni (sea urchin), which our server described as "very clear" in flavor. Translation: "tastes like seawater." An acquired taste, perhaps.

Where the sushi menu really takes off is with the specialty rolls ($5.25-$13.95). The beauty king-crab roll was just that — a beauty. The crab and chopped eel were a good match of flavors, and the portions were colossal. (This should be said of all sushi items, a la carte and rolls — they are not skimping here.) Likewise, the rolls that feature tempura shrimp (the signature Roda, Richmond and thunder roll) are well-matched to a big appetite. The one item here that failed to please entirely was the bonsai tree roll, a mix of three types of fish, crabmeat, roe, avocado, nori and cucumber. Deconstructed, it was fine, but taken all together, it was a waste. The cucumber washed out the subtle flavors of the fish and left me with a truly "clear" palate.

Those who favor the knives-and-fire excitement of the teppanyaki grill and its familiar offerings of steak and seafood will not be disappointed at Roda, though they probably won't be impressed either. But if it's your first time seeing grill tricks like the egg roll and flaming Mt. Fuji, you'll be entertained and well fed for your $13.95-$24.95. All entrées come with rice and grilled veggies as well as clear miso soup and a salad of iceberg lettuce with ginger-miso dressing. Pretty standard on all accounts.

Still, I was reminded by my toddler daughter's widened eyes that, depending on your experience and point of view, a professional hibachi chef can provide you with a dining destination that is pleasanter and at least as entertaining as Chuck E. Cheese (to say nothing of the health benefits, both mental and nutritional). It's something to consider when your kids say, "I want to go someplace fun for dinner tonight." Plus, at Roda you get to say things like "You have to finish all your sea urchin before you get any dessert." That, too, is pretty standard — plain cheesecake or ice cream in a rice cake or fried in tempura batter — though I dare anyone to have the room to indulge in dessert. Besides, if you've traveled up to that neck of the woods for a movie, Milk Duds await. S

Roda Japan House ($$) NS
266-0002
1080 Virginia Center Parkway #121
Glen Allen
www.rodajapanesesteakhouse.com
Monday-Thursday: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.,
4:30 p.m.-10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.,
4:30 p.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday: Noon-10 p.m.

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