Nanakusa Japanese Restaurant, 408 E. Chicago St., can now be classified as one of Milwaukee's veteran sushi restaurants, with more than five years of service under its belt, and it is one of Milwaukee's three premier sushi mainstays. Sleek and contemporary, Nanakusa draws well from the Third Ward condominium dwellers, and the open, airy bar space beckons a large cocktail crowd.
I've visited Nanakusa nearly a dozen times over the years, with varying degrees of success. On more recent visits, I have come to prefer the bar service and great wine selections with a smattering of appetizers over regular sit-down dining, where the quality seems to ebb and flow.
At Nanakusa, you can often locate some rare finds like Ahi grade tuna on its sashimi list, and when the restaurant is on point, the fish selection and presentation rival some of the best in the city. But, when it's off, it's really off, which will deter those diners who crave consistency, and more often, those of us who crave sushi.
Recent visits to Nanakusa left me underwhelmed with the food and dining service, but I found bar service to be prompt and attentive. During one visit, a dining room server disdainfully persuaded us to change our order from the Ten-Don, a tempura shrimp dish with rice and special sauce, served with Japanese pickles and miso soup ($9.50), to the Oyako-Don ($8.50), which she said was less authentic.
We weren't certain why or how the lack of authenticity was a good thing, but we were not pleased with the chicken cutlet version of the dish, which was heavy with egg and sticky rice that bordered on mushy.
Sushi and maki selections here, too, did not live up to previously set expectations. Hamachi (yellow tail, $7), unagi (freshwater eel, $6.50), and kihada (ahi tuna, $5.50) were all okay, but two rolls, the spider maki ($8.50) and dragon roll ($18) were virtually inedible. The soft shell crab in the spider maki was overcooked to a dry, crumbly consistency, and the dragon roll was wanting in portion size, flavor and presentation.
A salmon teriyaki appetizer ($6.75) from the grill was one of the better items on Nanakusa's recent menu, with the salmon slightly infused with the teriyaki sauce and pleasantly grilled to a lovely medium rare.
So, the draw at Nanakusa is its vibrant wine and sake selection, a fairly decent appetizer selection, and the occasional rare find that would bring me back for cocktail hour and nibbling. But for me, enjoying sushi and sashimi is as much about the presentation and atmosphere as it is about the flavors and textures, and I'm not confident I can consistently find those ideals at Nanakusa right now.
Amy L. Schubert is a 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry and has worked in every aspect of bar and restaurant operations. A graduate of Marquette University (B.A.-Writing Intensive English, 1997) and UW-Milwaukee (M.A.-Rhetoric, Composition, and Professional Writing, 2001), Amy still occasionally moonlights as a guest bartender and she mixes a mean martini.
The restaurant business seems to be in Amy’s blood, and she prides herself in researching and experimenting with culinary combinations and cooking techniques in her own kitchen as well as in friends’ restaurants. Both she and her husband, Scott, are avid cooks and “wine heads,” and love to entertain friends, family and neighbors as frequently as possible.
Amy and Scott live with their boys, Alex and Nick, in Bay View, where they are all very active in the community. Amy finds great pleasure in sharing her knowledge and passions for food and writing in her contributions to OnMilwaukee.com.