There really are good reasons to drive Academy Boulevard, even though it means braving oxygen-deprived drivers, construction zones and people who think "Right Lane Ends" means they can wait till their bumper is scraping the barrel marking the end of the lane before they cut into the left lane, completely oblivious to traffic around, beside and behind them. Despite the fact that these drivers are usually flicking still-glowing cigarette butts out their window while juggling their cell phones and scalding hot coffee drinks, it's still worth the trip.
In the middle of one such construction zone you'll find Akasaka Japanese Restaurant, nestled in the plaza on the southeast corner of Flintridge and Academy. Walking through their front door is like walking into another world. It's cool, it's serene and it's enticing. The pale wooden tables and low-slung wooden chairs are inviting, the small sushi bar is perfectly proportioned to the space, and the atmosphere is soothing, like stepping into a cool stream after you've been hiking all day.
The menu is quite extensive, but unfortunately does not come with many translations. Luckily the staff is patient and friendly, willing to explain anything you have questions about and to make translations for you. All the meals come with miso soup, with delicate little cubes of tofu and tiny rings of green onion, plus a small dish of edamame (soy beans) and a small dish of a creamy, light crab and cucumber salad, which is quite refreshing.
There are a variety of combination meals to sample at Akasaka. There are several sushi and sashimi permutations, sized for lunch and dinner. You can also get combinations that mix a little bit of everything, from different corners of the menu, and I dare say you can't go wrong no matter which way you go.
For me, a big bowl of thick, slippery, chewy udon noodles is a treat, and I wasn't disappointed here. There are several different ways your noodles and broth can be topped, including fried tofu and tempura. I thought it was a nice touch when the waitress asked me if I preferred to have my tempura on the noodles or on the side, since I prefer them on the side so the tempura batter stays shatteringly crispy. The tempura was beautifully done, the shrimp juicy and the vegetables just cooked enough to take the raw edge off, but still crunchy and full of flavor. The enormous bowl of udon was also topped with shredded rice cake, tempura crumbs, shredded bamboo shoots and finely chopped seaweed. It was delicious and soul-satisfying. I'm anxious to go back and try the soba, cold buckwheat noodles, which I'm sure would be perfect on a hot summer day.
The donburi dishes are also very good, and any of them would make an excellent choice for someone who wanted to stay far away from the sushi. I sampled the Katsu Don, which is a chicken cutlet lightly breaded in crumbs and fried, sliced and served in a bowl over rice. The chicken is topped with onions, rice cake, bamboo shoots and egg all sauted together, which make for a deceptively filling meal.
I'm not a huge sushi fan, nor do I feel qualified to judge most of it. But the rolls are a different story, and Akasaka makes a wonderful variety. I was enormously pleased with the California roll, the spicy tuna roll (which left a wonderful tingle on the tongue) and the cucumber roll, which I had to fight the 4-year-old and the 2-year-old for. Speaking of which, Akasaka is truly a place you can take the whole family, because they don't just deal with children but seem to truly enjoy them, and will be happy to make accommodations to their meals. They offer a generous children's meal, and have a deft manner at making children feel welcome.
The single most expensive item on the menu is the Triple Combination for $18.95, and I urge you not to order it unless you are truly starving, or unless you're contemplating splitting it between two people. Each of the elements on its own would make a complete meal. You start with a delicate tower of tempura, with shrimp and impeccably fresh vegetables including the likes of onion, sweet potato, broccoli and eggplant. Next comes a platter of sashimi with all the trimmings, followed by a New York steak with a special dipping sauce. (They'll also provide A.1. steak sauce, but you won't need it.) This is, of course, in addition to the aforementioned soup, salad and rice.
If you have any room at the end of your meal, you have a choice of red bean or green tea ice cream or a mango sorbet. The red bean ice cream was rich and creamy without being too sweet, but the mango sorbet was exceptional -- smooth, not icy, and tasted like the essence of fresh, ripe mango.
In retrospect, that sorbet itself may be reason enough to brave the construction out front ... though I think there might be a cucumber roll calling my name.