Asian adventures, New Albany style

The Onion
The Onion Restaurant and Tea House has built quite a following since it opened in New Albany a few years back. LEO photo by Nicole Pullen

LEO’s Eat ‘n’ Blog with Louisville HotBytes
(Onion Restaurant and Tea House, Tran Japanese Steakhouse)

It’s been a great pleasure, in recent years, to see such a surge of restaurant-related activity on the north side of the Ohio. The arrival of a growing variety of eateries in Southern Indiana is good news for “foodies” on both sides of the river.

In addition to the obvious – the boomlet of chain eateries on the riverfront and across the Clarksville strip – the region has been gifted in recent years with interesting, locally-owned independent restaurants that range from taquerias and Asian spots to casually sophisticated dining rooms. We’ll have more on that, and a deeper look at the New Albany restaurant renaissance in particular, coming soon.

One of the many epicenters of Southern Indiana eats activity, perhaps just a bit out of sight and out of the way for Kentucky diners, lies along Grant Line and Charlestown roads near I-265 on New Albany’s north side. This growing field of shopping centers and strip malls may look like chain country, but it houses such local treasures as Rich O’s/New Albanian Brewing Co., arguably the best beer bar in the region and one of the best in the nation; and the recently reviewed Wings To Go and Joe’s OK Bayou.

Today Eat ‘N’ Blog correspondent SUZI BERNERT comes back from an expedition to Charlestown Road, and reports with pleasure on two fine Asian eateries with Japanese themes. Here’s her report:

We arrived at Onion Restaurant and Tea House at dinnertime on a Monday and found the restaurant busy, but there was no wait for a table. The restaurant appears to be a converted residence, with multiple rooms for seating. It is the perfect place for a group with diverse tastes – there are pasta dishes, burgers, salads, Chinese and Japanese specialties on the Japanese, Chinese and American menu, and there are no hibachi tables or knife-juggling chefs in sight.

On our arrival, we were presented with three menus: the regular menu, the “special” menu and the complete dinner menu. If it’s your first visit, be prepared to do some reading. The regular menu offers the entrees divided by type. The special menu adds a small sushi selection, some appetizers and entrées. The complete dinner menu lists full meals including appetizer, entrée, drink and dessert.

Despite the extensive options, we were determined to have Japanese food. Son Edward ordered crunchy shrimp sushi, and I got sesame dumplings from the specials menu. The sushi was fresh and the shrimp crunchy and good. The sesame dumplings appeared handmade, with a meat and vegetable filling and a sauce with a roasted sesame oil base. They were very tender and flavorful.

The only misstep of the evening happened when my son tried to order the Chicken Hot Pot ($8.95) for dinner. The description of raw meat and vegetables to be cooked at the table really intrigued Edward. The server tried to talk him out of ordering it, saying he would not understand the flavors. Only after we both assured him that Edward had extensive experience with Asian food would they agree to take his order.

I ordered the Shrimp Udon ($8.95). Our server brought a small butane stove to the table and proceeded to fill the table with plates of food and small bowls of sauces. The chicken came thinly sliced, accompanied by mounds of nappa cabbage, onions, mushrooms, squash, broccoli, carrots, snow peas, bean spouts, tofu, rice noodles and rice. A large pot of hot broth was placed on the burner. The shrimp udon arrived in a deep metal bowl nestled in a wood frame. The dish had large shrimp, large, tender noodles, vegetables and a poached egg on top.

The broth was still bubbling, so while waiting for it to cool a bit, I helped Edward cook some of his Hot Pot. He really enjoyed the way its flavors changed depending on which ingredients he cooked and which sauces he used. Both entrées were large enough to feed two people. The broths were flavorful but did not overwhelm the flavor of the fresh ingredients in either dinner.

In its teahouse mode, Onion offers specialty teas served in the pot ($2.50 to $2.95). An appetizing lunch menu includes sandwiches ($3.50 to $6.50) and Asian lunches ($5.25).

Onion Restaurant and Tea House
4211 Charlestown Road
New Albany
(812) 981-0188

Edward and I found ourselves in New Albany again a week later and decided to try Tran Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi this time. Tran is a more “traditional” Japanese steakhouse layout: Several rooms have hibachi grill tables, and there’s a sushi bar. Due to the early hour – we arrived around 5 p.m. – we opted for a table for two in the sushi bar, which has several tables as well as the bar.

The menu has a full page of appetizers, soups, salads, a varied list of Bento Boxes (the longest I have seen outside of the New York City area), udon noodle dishes and the teppanyaki grilled dishes, all at reasonable prices.

We decided on an order of gyoza ($4.50) and beef tataki ($9.95) to start. The gyoza dumplings arrived hot, deep fried with a bit of vegetable garnish and dipping sauce. They had a good flavor and a non-greasy crunch. The Beef Tataki came with a green onion and fried cellophane noodle garnish. The beef was sliced thin and just barely warm (as it should be). The marinated flavor and sauce on the beef was grand, giving just enough spice to enhance the beef flavor, not bury it.

After polishing off the beginnings in rapid order (have you ever seen a teenage boy make sparks with chopsticks?), we ordered sushi. Our first round was a spider roll ($7.50) and an avocado roll ($3.50). The “spider” (softshell crab) was fried with no sign of grease, still hot and crunchy from the fryer. The vegetables in the roll were fresh. Consider yourself notified that these rolls are huge, at least 2 inches across. This is not a sushi to be handled in one bite, unless you want to get up close and personal with the Heimlich Maneuver. Size aside, it was very good, as was the more normally proportioned avocado roll.

Sushi Round Two consisted of Inari ($3.50), fried shrimp roll ($5.50) and lobster roll ($11.95).

The Inari consisted of two plump pillows of sweet tofu sheets sealed around rice and shiitake mushrooms, then fried. Again, the greaseless, crisp frying process enhanced good flavors. The fried shrimp were hot, with good flavor and crunch. The lobster roll was bulked up by the same steroids as the spider roll. The lobster was still warm, baked in a sauce with a slight teriyaki taste; its sweet flavor was fresh and compatible with avocado and cucumber in the large roll.

As we ate, the restaurant began to fill up, and we enjoyed the sounds of the chefs chopping and chatting. I made a note to come back for a teppanyaki (hibachi grill) dinner.

After our second round of sushi, I heard two words that mothers of teenage boys seldom hear: “I’m full!” Hmmm, maybe there is something to be said for those huge sushi rolls …

New Albany is blessed to have two fine Japanese establishments so close together. Depending on your mood and preference, you can enjoy different but pleasing food adventures at each.

Tran Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi
4317 Charlestown Road
New Albany
(812) 941-0200