Enn Japanese Restaurant

A new sushi (plus) spot in Lincoln brings authentic Japanese, with a modern makeover, to the ’burbs.

Enn Japanese Restaurant  orange starorange starhalf star

600 George Washington Highway, Lincoln, 333-0366, ennri.com. Open for lunch and dinner Sunday–Friday, dinner on Saturday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Parking lot. Cuisine Classic Japanese with a few American adaptations. Capacity One hundred. Vibe If you’re looking in at the sushi bar, harmonious; if you’re looking out at the Toyota dealership, incongruous. Prices Tuna tostados, tuna tartar a la Korean, udon soup, sushi and sashimi. Karen’s picks Raw bar, “rack of pork,” porterhouse lamb chops, steaks.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent half starHalf-star

The Americanization of Japanese cuisine begins with awesome. Enn Japanese Restaurant, on the geographic precipice between Lincoln and Smithfield, describes its food as such, which should give some inkling as to their marketing approach. Owned by Gregory Tripp, Kent Maurice and Ko Wanatabe, its ties to Western culture are as evident as its Eastern identity. And though the generic concrete monolith that houses Enn may not evoke modernity, the kitchen shows considerable proficiency in the evolving language of raw fish. Is the progression always positive? No. But a respect for tradition and a few dishes destined to be classics more than make up for the occasional, dairy-laced stumble.

Enn’s biggest roadblock may be anonymity. A weeknight visit had only one occupied table (guilty as charged) with a few enthusiasts at the sushi bar. That’s a lot of empty space given capacity (nearly a hundred) and capability. Granted, it’s not in walking distance to anything other than a car dealership, so sake-saturated binges are out of the question unless you’re chaperoned. The ambience is also somewhat puzzling in that the sunset-colored walls and Asian agricultural motif do little to infuse this large rectangle with the feel of the Far East. But sushi fanatics can forgive a lot since their main concern is the quality of what could be a divine meal or, if you take a pessimistic approach, a trip to the hospital. The good news is that Enn’s seafood almost always rewards its recipient.

Not surprisingly, appetizers afford the most opportunity for innovation. Japanese cuisine is more about old favorites (a.k.a. the ubiquitous but adored spicy tuna roll), but there are some notable exceptions. Spicy tuna tostadas sound like a regrettable Mexican hybrid — plenty of places have put slabs of Japanese-style fish on tortilla chips to mass dismay — but, in fact, it’s pretty true to its roots. Raw chile-infused tuna sits here on top of nori and rice “biscuits” that are deep fried in thin squares. It may sound heavy, but it’s quite light with a compelling but not kitschy texture.

Even better is the Korean tuna tartar, the only dish that hails from another Asian country. Once again tuna is served raw but mixed with ko-chee-chang (Korean hot pepper paste) and a quivering quail egg on top that can be tossed quickly to form a light emulsion around the fish. Aficionados of Korean food will note the similarities to the meat-based bee-bim bop, a personal obsession that may have just lost its perch in the top spot. On the more expected side, well-executed tempura shows up quite a bit (distressingly labeled “tempra” several times) as do dumplings, which are substantive but surprisingly delicate — pan-fried without a drop of oil to show for it. Adventure seekers will also like takosu, a classic preparation of octopus tentacles in vinaigrette that sounds intimidating but bears similarities to a non-acid ceviche.
 
The sushi and sashimi list is formidable with more than five dozen varieties of straightforward fish and more novel concepts. Some of the latter are far more palatable than they appear, with a strong emphasis on disparate textures and subtle flavors. The B-52 maki might be the trend’s strongest example, bringing together an unlikely marriage of crabstick, avocado and hamachi (yellowtail), all deep-fried, rolled in rice and topped with a mild fish roe. Sounds weird, right? It’s actually a clever play on a California roll with, yes, a heavier feel, but ingenuity as well.
 
Less appealing are the overtly American approaches to sushi. The Lincoln maki wraps asparagus tempura in thin sheets of seared beef and avocado (just plain odd) while the Sunrise version tries to make a mega-maki out of mozzarella and sundried tomatoes (just plain wrong). Are you supposed to dunk it in soy sauce or leave it plain? I tried both and preferred them left behind the sushi bar.

The tendency to replace native ingredients with culinary trends (god forbid I see a nori-wrapped gnudi this year) isn’t new; I’m only surprised it didn’t burn out a decade ago. Americans like Japanese food because it’s, well, Japanese, and not because we want goat cheese in rice paper. Some of this wild and crazy fun may come from Milford’s Wanokura, another restaurant owned by Wanatabe, which features — gulp — sundried tomato and feta, a combo that thankfully stayed across state lines. The biggest surprise, however, was the Trippy roll, Enn’s equivalent of a kitchen sink roll. A combination of hamachi, salmon, tuna and avocado sounds fairly safe, but a sizable wedge of cold cream cheese is incongruous to the point of uncomfortable.

Concessions can be made for this nouveau approach: chicken teriyaki, shrimp tempura, even sweet potato taste perfectly fine wrapped in rice if you really want to go down that road. If you don’t? Avoid anything with cheese in it. 

For tables that order only food that’s been cooked through, the kitchen will do teriyaki, udon soups and sauteed yakisoba. Agemono — literally, fried things — can be prepared with panko-coated chicken, pork or shrimp and though it is refined as far as fried protein goes, the accompanying fruit sauce is less tropical and more acidic. (Its base fruit is actually tomato, which may technically be a fruit but not the first one you’d think of.)

Desserts are what you’d expect, basically green tea, red bean and darn good ginger ice cream (ignoring the awkward quasi-cream topping). You certainly can’t fault the service, which, depending on the number of customers, might bring you in contact with more than one server, at least one owner and the chef on a fry break. One hopes that they’ll all have a crowded house in the near future given what they have to offer. Enn may have a few gimmicks in their arsenal, but they don’t need them; basics should be more than enough to fill the tables.

Karen Deutsch is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York.

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