The Global Table: Culinary customs of Japan upheld at Ando Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar

BLUE ASH, Ohio - Each Thursday, our "Global Table" column explores the international side of Greater Cincinnati dining. Follow WCPO contributor, Grace Yek, as she talks to the chefs and owners of these dining spots about their food, culture and journey to the Tri-State.

Ando Japanese Restaurant  and Sushi Bar

Signature dishes

You won't find “half-price sushi” at Ando restaurant.  What you will find is, uncompromisingly fresh seafood, a well-heeded seasonal menu and a chef who is serious about upholding the culinary customs of Japan.

The sushi menu puts the flavor of the fish front and center.  It is not overtaken by rolls of whimsical  construction, which often detract from the flavor of the fish.  You'll find sushi and sashimi, beautifully handcrafted with fish such as sayori (half beak), tsuri aji (horse mackerel), fukko (sea bass) and hotaru ika (firefly squid). (See photo.)  Chyu toro, the prized soft fatty belly of tuna, is also served here.

Popular items that span noodles, rice bowls and one-pot dishes grace the menu here.  The hidden gem, though, is in the authentic menu, which is only provided when requested.  This menu, handwritten in Japanese, showcases traditional dishes you might find in a restaurant in Japan.  The items generally take a longer time to prepare - some may even require a few days.  For example, buta bara (pork belly) takes approximately three days to prepare, as it has to undergo repeated cycles of cooking and resting.  The result is an incredibly tender and flavorful cut of meat that does not fall apart easily.

Meet the owners

Keiichi Ando had his sights set on French cookery.  That was many years ago.

"I started working in a French restaurant when I was 19.  My dream was to be a French chef," Ando recalled.

While life didn't quite work out that way, Ando is today the chef and owner of Ando Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar.  Together with his wife, Keiko, and daughter, Chiaki, Ando brings the authentic flavors and customs of Japan to Cincinnati.

Born and raised in Nagoya, Ando worked in various food service establishments in Japan, including a stint on a cruise ship.  What brought him to this country was the adventure of opening a restaurant in New York.

"I was around 23, and a group of us moved to Long Island to open this Japanese restaurant," Ando recounted.  He moved on to other restaurants in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, before coming to Cincinnati where he met his wife, Keiko.

After a couple more stints in Minneapolis and Chicago, Ando returned to Cincinnati to help a friend in the restaurant business.

 "I never thought I would come back to Cincinnati, but somehow that's my fortune,” he said.  His friend ultimately closed the restaurant, leaving Ando at a crossroad.

"When he closed, I opened my own restaurant," Ando said.

Ando opened his namesake restaurant in 1998 in Lebanon, to a sparse clientele.  Sushi was still relatively unknown.

 "People didn't know sushi.  It was miserable.  I remember two days where there were no customers," he said.

Ando's in-laws came over from Japan to work at the restaurant.  The restaurant survived the early days because of low labor costs.  Slowly but surely, Ando started to become known to the Japanese community.
In 2004, he relocated the restaurant to Blue Ash.

"I found this location 10 days before I had to move out," Ando said.  This time the restaurant opened to a much different scenario - a steady stream of customers.

 The advent of “half-price sushi” has blurred the lines between quantity and quality, often causing customers to mistake one for the other.  Ando believes sushi should highlight the quality and flavor of the fish, something that should not be compromised in the frenzy of price wars.  He offers another word of advice to any who might want to follow in his footsteps.

"Before you open a sushi restaurant, get the skills first."

Cultural flavor

"Japanese food looks simple, but it is complicated," Ando said.  "The skill is to make something complicated look simple."

According to Ando, the choice of fish in the sushi bars in Japan, change seasonally -- something he practices at the restaurant.  After all these years, Ando has a discerning customer base that not only has a penchant for quality sushi and sashimi but also authentic Japanese dishes.  Ando maintains an authentic menu that features specialty items that are generally costlier, and preparation-intensive.

"If nobody orders from it, I have to throw the food away.  But it's very important for the restaurant to have this menu." 

Ando reflects fondly on kaizeki meals, which he used to make for various Japanese corporations when he was in the Lebanon location.  Kaizeki is a multi-course meal, typically ranging 10 to 12 courses.  Each

course is a dainty portion of beautifully crafted food, elegantly displayed and carefully constructed to reflect the seasons.   For example, the use of hamo (pike eel) in soup reflects summer.  Hamo is sliced across very thinly, and not all the way through, so that when it meets the hot soup, it "blooms." 

While soup may seem like an ancillary dish in many cultures, it is paramount to Japanese cuisine.  The proper use, technique and presentation of seasonal ingredients test the skill of the chef.  "In Japan, you can tell the skill of the chef just by the soup they serve," Ando said.

By the way

The beauty of Japanese food has often been compared to art.  However, Ando doesn't consider himself an artist.

 "I don't think of that word," Ando said.

What he does think about is shokunin. The simple translation of shokunin is the mastery of a profession.  However, it encompasses more than just physical skills.  It's a consciousness and a lifelong dedication to perfect one's chosen profession.

(All photos by Grace Yek)

Grace Yek is a faculty member at the Midwest Culinary Institute, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.

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