Ponzu Sushi & Grill is doing a great job at half of what its name suggests.
During three recent visits, we had excellent sushi, sashimi and nigiri. But some of what we ate at Ponzu didn't seem homemade. Appetizers, especially, felt pre-packaged and sauces seemed bottled.
The atmosphere at Ponzu, in Aksarben Village, is bright, open and airy, with modern style and clean lines. The mix of white tables, white chairs, gray accents and metal finishes didn't feel too sterile. It was minimal, yet tasteful. Neighborhood families and University of Nebraska at Omaha students made up the majority of the diners.
We started our first visit with ceviche, Asian pork sliders and a sesame tuna appetizer.
My husband, a huge fan of ceviche — a Latin American appetizer of raw fish marinated in citrus, usually lime juice — was excited when he saw it on the menu.
A mix of shrimp, delicate whitefish, avocado, tomato and cucumber came in a “basket” made of fried wontons. The ceviche had a light, delicate flavor and matched well with the wonton, though the wonton itself was a bit hard to eat: Once we started breaking off parts of the basket, the contents spilled out onto the plate.
The pulled pork in the sliders, slightly greasy, was piled high atop a pretzel roll and dressed with a spicy aioli and pickled cucumbers that added just the right amount of punch and acidity.
The sesame tuna was so-so. Five thin slices of tuna rested in a shallow pool of chili oil, all topped with half-moon slices of grape tomato and a daikon radish and scallion relish. The tuna itself was lovely, but the chili oil was too overpowering for the delicate fish.
Executive chef Brandon Riesgaard said the dish is meant to appeal to customers who like both delicate preparation and spicy flavors.
My husband and I love sushi, and we were impressed with what arrived at our table: an impeccably arranged and beautifully decorated platter of nigiri, sashimi and sushi rolls on a tray with a fresh flower garnish.
We've been on an octopus kick since a recent Florida vacation, and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to try the octopus sashimi at Ponzu. It had a lovely subtle flavor, not too “fishy,” and the sesame seeds and scallion on top added crunch.
Though properly prepared, it was cumbersome; sliced a bit too thick and too big for one bite.
Unagi, freshwater eel, rested atop a little mound of sushi rice and was bundled neatly with a strip of seaweed. The bite was lightly dressed with a touch of eel sauce to add a bit of umami, the Japanese fifth taste that loosely translates to “savory.”
The Firecracker Roll, with tempura-fried shrimp and spicy crab, was rolled traditionally with seaweed and sushi rice, dressed in a sweet chili sauce and coated in Japanese panko breadcrumbs. We loved its meld of sweet and spicy and its textural interest.
The Alaska roll was the one miss of the evening.
It had crispy salmon, fresh salmon, cucumber and scallion topped with a spicy lemon aioli that seemed a bit too heavy for the roll.
The texture threw me. The crispy salmon skin got stuck in my teeth and for a moment, it felt as though I was chewing on fish bones.
Riesgaard said crispy salmon skin is traditional in Japan, and he wanted to incorporate the “chip-like” texture into the roll.
On a lunch visit, we ordered from Ponzu's grill menu.
The pork potstickers with sweet ponzu sauce weren't great: We liked the sauce but the dumplings tasted frozen and though they were crispy, they were too greasy and bland.
General manager Lauren DiPrima said the restaurant makes the potstickers in-house once a week, freezes them and then fries them to order.
A lot of the menu items we had on another lunch visit felt too pre-prepared, and we had a hard time finding Ponzu's fingerprint in the dishes.
We tried the fried chicken wings, which arrived on a mountain of coconut jasmine rice. The wings were prepared using the karaage technique, a frying method similar to tempura. The grilled lemon garnish, when squeezed over the wings, added a perfect acidic element.
My husband tried the Kobe burger with togarashi-spiced fries and a tempura-fried pickle. The nicely cooked burger was juicy and had a meaty flavor. Togarashi is a Japanese seven-flavor chili pepper spice mix, and the spice was pleasing, though the fries seemed frozen.
DiPrima said the burger was made with a mixture of Kobe and American beef, and the fries are made in house daily.
Our friend ordered the teriyaki chicken breast, served with coconut jasmine rice and asparagus. The chicken was tender and juicy, but the teriyaki tasted bottled. DiPrima said the teriyaki chicken is on the menu for the less adventurous eater. She also said all of Ponzu's sauces are made in-house.
Ponzu serves three of its fish tacos to an order, filled with blackened grouper, avocado and a red cabbage and jicama slaw and sides of cilantro lime aioli and mango salsa. They weren't spicy enough for me, but the fish did go well with the slaw. The $15 price tag seemed high.
Riesgaard said grouper isn't usually in fish tacos because it's more expensive, but he uses it because he likes the texture.
On our final visit, we went back to what we thought Ponzu did best: sushi.
The cilantro ponzu hamachi roll was outstanding. Strips of lightly seared hamachi topped with spicy crab, cucumber and avocado were rolled into little bundles and served with a drizzling of a flavorful cilantro sauce.
My husband, a Florida native, said the flavor of the fish reminded him of home. It was fresh, acidic, herbaceous and had an excellent combination of textures.
We shared the poke roll, a play on the traditional Hawaiian dish of cubed raw yellowfin tuna, seaweed and soy sauce, which was an easy win. The combination of briny seaweed salad and velvety tuna was perfect. It was just spicy enough but, as my husband said, “not too macho.”
Ponzu's wait staff are courteous, helpful and efficient. Its sushi and rolls are done well, and if it can make the necessary adjustments to its grill and appetizer menus, Ponzu could become a mainstay not just for Aksarben Village neighbors, but for the whole city.
Sara Blake of Omaha is an avid home cook and an adventurous eater. She blogs at stalkmykitchen.wordpress.com.