It may seem funny that someone so sushi-timid is reviewing another Japanese restaurant, but alas I am re-discovering their appeal in my attempt to make healthier choices when I dine out. My second stop on the Japanese restaurant tour was Sapporo, located at 230 Commercial Street on Union Wharf in Portland.
It was noon and we were pleased to escape the March rain and step into a calm, quiet atmosphere for Saturday lunch. The host greeted us warmly and we got a big smile from the sushi master, carefully slicing radishes behind a dimly-lit sushi bar. We were seated in the main dining area, bright from natural light and facing Commercial Street. While admiring the soothing décor – the cream-colored canopies above, the back-lit handmade paper screens and a wall adorned with hanging light blue and lavender ropes, our waiter took our drink order of green tea (complimentary), a large Sapporo beer ($7.00) and juice for the little one.
With so many choices, Sapporo’s menu is slightly overwhelming to me and the sushi options are especially numerous. In addition to the specific sushi and sashimi selections, Sapporo has put together six sushi lunch combinations ($9.95-$14.95) plus five party platters that have 38- 48 pieces ($24.95-$59.95). The Bento Box ($9.95) gives the diner a choice to try a little of everything, therefore guaranteeing my husband to choose it. This included miso soup, shrimp and vegetable teriyaki, sticky rice, pork dumplings and a choice of rolls. He picked the spicy tuna for his rolls. Given the proximity to the ocean, I would say Sapporo was good choice for fresh seafood.
We all got miso soup, which was very flavorful and had a few cubes of tofu. (On a side note: miso’s numerous health benefits such as supporting immune function, energy production and bones and blood vessels has encouraged me to eat it as often as possible.)
I opted for the vegetarian noodle dish – Vegetarian Yakisoba ($7.95)-- and this time I made sure to get the thinner, buckwheat soba noodles as opposed to the thicker white udon noodles that I tried recently. The vegetables were chopped small inside my large nest of pasta – mostly onions, carrots, and mushrooms. It was a large portion of noodles, coated in a flavorful, oily sauce and sprinkled with dried seaweed. I took home the rest of my pasta, to which I added a lot more stir-fried vegetables for another tasty meal.
We would not normally bring our 5-year-old to a Japanese restaurant, but it’s worth noting that Sapporo must see a lot of pint-sized guests. The fish tank is a crowd-pleaser. Additionally, Sapporo has a children’s Bento Box ($5.95), which comes in a plastic car and has an array of child-friendly options – fruit with whipped cream, chicken teriyaki, rice, French fries and a small slice of cake. A cup of miso was also added at my request. While my child rates pretty high on the picky-eater meter, the presentation of the food plus the challenge and novelty of the chopsticks encouraged her to at least try some of the food. The bonus was that I got to eat the chicken teriyaki, which was perfectly sweet and salty.
Our waiter was very attentive and pleasant and we felt comfortable taking our time. This would be a great place to bring visitors to Portland who want to explore downtown and then get a nice, healthy meal with friendly service in a peaceful restaurant. I watched all of those small ornate sushi sculptures go by, thinking I may even be bold and try it one day. I’ll be back soon, Sapporo!
Sapporo is open seven days/week for lunch and dinner. There are a six parking places designated for customers to the left of the building (as you face it) or you can try your luck getting an undesignated space behind the building.
Aroma Spices Up a Rainy Friday A rainy Friday is an opportune time to sneak away from obligations and go out for lunch, and I had been wanting to try Aroma (www.aroma-indiancuisine.com), the new(er) Indian restaurant at 200 Gorham Road in South Portland for a while now.
On Tuesday through Sunday, from 11 am to 3 pm, Aroma has a lunch buffet ($9.95 weekdays, $12.95 weekends), and the full dining room when we visited attested to the popularity of this option. The room was set up for a buffet, and I will have to return some time and try their full-service dinner options. The décor included a flat-screen television in the corner playing close-up images of Indian food, or as my husband called it, “food porn” and unfortunately the same carpeting that is in my neighborhood bowling alley, with bright stars and streaks. They do have pleasing shades of red and yellow on the wall and comfortable, practical seating.
The buffet included a list of Indian favorites, like Chicken Tikka Masala, Chicken Curry, and Tandoori Chicken, as well as items I had never heard of before. There were vegetarian options like Carrot Puriyal and Daal Makhani (lentils cooked in butter with fresh onions, garlic, ginger, and tomatoes, topped with coriander), as well as Navaratan Koorma (nine garden fresh vegetables, gently simmered in a spice-laced cream sauce). In addition, warm Naan bread and white rice or Coconut rice is available.Beer is also available, and judging from the large bottles of Taj Mahal on several tables, a popular option.
I started with a small cup of Mulligatawny soup (the other soup option was Sweet Corn soup), and my husband grabbed a handful of Punugulu, which are small fried dumplings or fritters. Both were warm and well-spiced.
My husband chose the Navaratan Koorma, Chicken Tikka Masala, and Tandoori Chicken. I had the naan bread, the chicken Tikka Masala and the Curry Chicken with coconut rice. The true test of a buffet is, of course, the second round. My husband eliminated the Navaratan Koorma, but the Chicken Tikka Masala, Tandoori Chicken, and the underdog, Pungulu, all advanced to his second plate. As for me, I went back for the curry chicken. I didn’t think I had really eaten that much but I felt stuffed. The sauces seemed heavy to me and I couldn’t find a vegetable in either one. But they had a delicious flavor and for me, just the right amount of spice.
Aroma is a nice addition to the growing number of Indian dining options in greater Portland. Although I’m not a “buffet person,” the format does allow the diner, especially someone new to Indian food, to try different options. It would have been nice if they had put explanations of the ingredients next to each dish, because they were unfamiliar to me. Throughout our meal, the wait staff was friendly and attentive, offering drinks and clearing plates.
Aroma specializes in South Indian cuisine, so in addition to all of their options, they have eleven choices that are specific to the region. With so many choices – some of which appear completely exotic and fun to try (Chillibajji or rice crepes, anyone?) – I will venture back and order from the menu.
Fuji: An Attempt at Eating Healthier Along with just about everyone I know, I have made a decision to make better choices about what I eat. So where does that leave me when I want to dine out? It’s a minefield out there. With the suggestion of a macrobiotic chef I met, who coached her class on “how to make better bad choices,” I’ve decided to focus on Japanese restaurants. With so many to choose from in Portland alone, this should be a fun project. First stop in the heart of the Old Port - Fuji. Fuji is one of the few to hold onto their Exchange Street location, while others are dropping like flies. The atmosphere inside was serene on an early Saturday evening at 5 pm in March. The sushi chefs were busy at work but in a quiet, practiced and deliberate way – creating all sorts of small, colorful, edible works of art. The hostess gracefully led us to our gently lit table by the window facing Milk Street. Upon opening the menu, I was struck by how many healthy options there were. It is also nice for people with lactose intolerance because there is virtually no milk on the whole menu. For those who don’t dig sushi, Fuji has a wide selection of noodles, salads, seafood and meat entrees. They also have hibachi downstairs. As I mentioned, I’m trying to eat better. But, that requires some patience. As a child, I ate chicken nuggets and french fries and when my parents took me to nice restaurants I would eat the dinner rolls. That was it. Over the years, I’ve made progress, but right now on the healthy eating spectrum, I’m someplace in the middle between a Big Mac and wheat grass juice. That said, I thought we would start off with the fried food! Ha. Off the wagon already. The shrimp and vegetable tempura ($5.50), a lightly battered and deep fried medley of vegetables: broccoli, onion, sweet potato, zucchini and two large shrimp, hit the spot. The artistic presentation sent the message that they took time to prepare it and we should take time enjoying it. The vegetables were cooked just right – very bright, still crunchy and hands-down the best way to eat sweet potato. Nobody wants to deep fry stuff at home, might as well enjoy it in a restaurant. That’s my excuse. (Note to self: next time, no sharing.) Soon after our appetizer was cleared, our entrees arrived. My husband, who could be a spokesperson for the Fuji Bento Box, decided to branch out and get the Sushi Regular ($15.50), which is tuna, whitefish, salmon, mackerel, yellowtail, eel and white tuna. It also came with a California roll and miso soup. Sushi is just so darned beautiful – like a rainbow on your plate. My husband, in sushi mode, didn’t talk much for a while. At the end, chopsticks down, he said, “that was very good.” I, on the other hand, got in a little over my head. I ordered the Yasai Udon ($11.95), noodles and vegetables in vegetable broth. My first surprise was the quantity. I was given a cauldron of soup. This must have been intended for a family. In the end, it was a hearty meal three times. But, just as described: noodles. broth. vegetables. And some seaweed for good measure. There are lots of bright, white, thick noodles. I am just going to say it – all I could think about was worms. (For the record, this was the very first thing my 5-year-old said when I tried to get her to eat it.) In spite of the fact that my nose told my brain that this soup smelled of the ocean, I dug in. I love soup for its warmth, its comfort, its color and its health potential. I ate most of the broccoli, carrots, mushrooms and onions and called it a day. My husband didn’t think it had an ocean-y smell and he thought my worm comparison was juvenile. Oh, those virtuous sushi eaters! I’m not defeated, though. I ate my soup, feeling inspired and relaxed. I will try the teriyaki next time or the hibachi, both favorites of mine. Fuji was beginning to get crowded at 6pm when we left…we reluctantly ended our peaceful meal, headed back out into the cold (and someone may even have been looking around for a place to get some chocolate cake.)
It’s hard to overlook first impressions. Stepping into the Grill Room at 8 pm on a Friday night and my first impression was – wow, this place is doing well. Barely room to stand to wait for the hostess to seat us and watching party after party get ushered to their seats, my friend and I noted that it didn’t appear that slower financial times has hindered business here. They must be doing something right.