New York-caliber sushi, sake and Japanese fusion served up fresh in downtown Duluth

By Andrea Busche
Photos by Mike Busche

Hanabi Japanese Cuisine has been comfortably folded into a modest-size brick building on the hillside of First Avenue West since it opened in January 2009. Customer parking is metered on the avenue, and slanted mightily uphill … particularly precarious during Duluth winters. But once customers sample this exciting food, most become hooked; they’ll gladly overcome any obstacle to obtain their meal. But keep in mind that you can also opt out of the parking experience entirely and have the Food Dudes deliver — Hanabi is one of their most popular clients.

Hanabi’s style is a mix of traditional Japanese cuisine and Japanese fusion. While their sushi is world-class, there is so much more on the menu than just raw fish. So, even if you have a “meat and potatoes”-type person in your crew (like I do), no sweat. There is something for everyone at Hanabi.

The bar at Hanabi is well-stocked.

Fireworks … in your mouth

Hanabi is owned by Jack Huang, a former sushi chef from New York City. On a typical day, you’ll find three servers, three sushi chefs and two kitchen chefs on staff. Their sushi chefs must already be familiar with Japanese cuisine before getting the job, and once hired, all receive training from Jack.

The word Hanabi translates to “fireworks” in Japanese. The name is suiting, as dining at Hanabi is truly a voyage of flavors, textures and aromas; fireworks in your mouth, if you will. But, more on that later.

Hanabi restaurant features a sleek interior and bold artwork. Inset photo: Hanabi server Stef Staudohar can help diners navigate anything unfamiliar to them on the menu.

The vibe

As I entered the restaurant, my first thought was, “this place is so cool.” There was soft music playing in the background — trendy instrumentals with a thump of bass.

Featuring a sleek black ceiling, gray concrete walls and orange booths, the color scheme is understated, with a pop of color. Hanabi’s bar is artistically backlit, there is trendy “splatter art” on the walls (most of which is local and up for sale), and there is an entire wall of individual strings of white Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling, creatively knotted up on the ends. The sushi chefs create beautiful food at their station, where patrons can choose to enjoy the show.

Clientele on a Tuesday evening at 5 p.m. was mostly couples and a few groups of people dressed casually. And, while it was slow and quiet at 5, it started picking up at about 6.

Hanabi sushi chefs Eusajiro Yusaki, Ken Tanaka and Takei Yamoto.

The service

Our server for the evening was a sweet, competent young lady named Stef Staudohar. She’s been on-staff at Hanabi for about two and a half years, and patiently answered all of our questions about everything from the sake and the cuisine to the art. We even asked for her advice on eating with chopsticks!

So much more than sushi

Many people think of Japanese cuisine as mainly sushi. While there is definitely a huge presence of fresh sushi and sashimi on the menu, there is also fried rice, noodle dishes, seafood, hibachi, teriyaki dishes, tempura, cooked rolls and more. According to Hanabi’s manager, Joe Foster, their most popular items are fried rice, the North Shore Roll, Crunchy Roll and Spicy Krab Roll.

And when it comes to beverages, you’re in for a treat. There is a huge selection of sake (Japanese rice wine … pronounced sah-kay), red and white wines, imported, domestic and craft beers, Japanese whiskey and cocktails, many of which feature Duluth-crafted Vikre spirits.

Artwork adorns the walls of the Hanabi dining room.

What we ate

My husband, Mike, isn’t the most … adventurous eater. He’s the type of dude who is happiest with a slab of meat alongside a chunk of starch. So, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous to bring him to Hanabi.

Thankfully, there was something there for every palate. After some intense conversation with Stef, weighing out the pros and cons of the noodles versus rice, Mike opted for the fried rice. Normally, a person would choose the vegetarian option, beef, chicken or shrimp. Mike wanted to try both the beef and the chicken, so he got a double-meat, no veggie option.

And, for me … under the “Chef’s Special Rolls” section of the menu, I selected the Sweet & Sassy Roll, described on the menu as “shrimp tempura and avocado, topped with spicy krab salad, spicy mayo and eel sauce.”

A special treat from chef

While we waited for our food to arrive, Stef stopped by to announce that the chef had sent over something special for us to sample. When I asked what it was, her response was, “Well, it doesn’t have a name, actually, but it’s fillet mignon surrounding a ball of rice and served with a special soy-based sauce.”

This appetizer without a name was amazing. Thanks, Chef!

This “appetizer without a name” was an unexpected treat.

Soon, our entrees arrived. Mike’s fried rice was fluffy and flavorful, filled with a generous amount of sliced steak and chicken. While fried rice can sometimes be greasy, Hanabi’s version is light and less oily. The fried rice comes with a side of Hanabi’s proprietary “Yum Yum Sauce,” which is creamy and rich and well, yummy! Mike took a pass, so I gratefully nabbed the Yum for my own plate.

Mike attempted to eat his rice with chopsticks after a quick primer from Stef (“I hold one like a pencil, and move the bottom stick with my ring finger”), eventually succumbing to the faster plate-to-mouth delivery of a fork. After self-consciously recognizing that there were several other patrons nearby, I skipped the chopsticks entirely.

Sweet & Sassy Roll

And, now to my Sweet & Sassy Roll … where to begin with this delicious treasure? First of all, my roll was cooked. While I have tried raw fish sushi before, I personally prefer the cooked options. The tempura shrimp inside the roll was coated with delicate, crispy panko crumbs, and nestled in among some perfectly ripe chunks of avocado. This concoction was enclosed with a seaweed wrap, and coated with sticky rice on the outside.

On top of each bite of roll was a healthy portion of spicy krab (the “k” denotes imitation, not real, crab), and two sauces drizzled on top. The mayo sauce was spicy, and the brown eel sauce was sweet. Hence the name, this roll was sweet and most definitely sassy. Recognizing that my roll was already quite sassy, I took a pass on the sliced ginger and wasabi paste that accompanied the roll. But I did enjoy a dunk of soy sauce and a dip of Yum.

With each bite, I encountered salty with sweet; crunchy with soft, and oh so much flavor. This roll was amazing, and after polishing off every crumb, I was completely full for the rest of the night.

The roll was beautiful — truly a work of art. And both of our dishes were served on beautiful white square and rectangular plates, making the art of presentation a huge aspect of Hanabi’s appeal.

Beef & Chicken Fried Rice

What we drank

Although this column is known as Local Pairings, we simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pair our meal with some delicious Japanese beverages. At Stef’s suggestion, I ordered the Gekkeikan Zipang Junmai sparkling sake to accompany my roll.

The wine was served in an individual bottle that I poured into the tiniest, cutest little sake cup. Naturally carbonated, it has a sweet yet refreshingly light flavor. It also comes in mango. The slightly sweet and bubbly wine paired deliciously with the shrimp roll, and it helped put out the heat of the sauces.

Mike ordered a Sapporo, which is a Japanese rice lager. Japan’s oldest brand of beer, it features a crisp, balanced flavor. The Sapporo, which was served in a sturdy, 22-ounce can, was a nice complement to the rice-and-meat dish.

The verdict

If your palate could use a little excitement, Hanabi is an excellent choice. Whether you’re adventurous enough to sample some sushi or sashimi, or are just looking for some fried rice, their comprehensive menu doesn’t disappoint.

And, if you’re new to Hanabi, be sure to check out their very reasonably priced lunch specials, including rolls and teriyaki dishes. They also have a happy hour special every evening. If you’re simply not in the mood for the parking situation or the excitement of the downtown scene, call the Food Dudes and have your meal delivered!

Andrea Busche is a Duluth freelance writer and frequent contributor to Duluth.com.

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