Say konnichiwa to Asahi, St. Matthews’ neighborhood sushi bar

Sushi at Asahi
Chef Yong Bong Tak has made Asahi a worthy addition to St. Matthews. The extensive menu includes more than 100 sushi options, including the “Hawaiian Roll” (across the top) and two pairs of nigiri sushi (bottom) – yellowtail (hamachi) on the left and mackerel (saba) on the right. Photos by Robin Garr

LEO’s Eats with

If the rate that new Japanese restaurants and sushi bars are coming to town these days continues unabated, I’ve calculated that by May 18, 2021, there should be an individual sushi bar for every citizen of the Derby City.

I’ve reviewed enough new local sushi spots in recent months that I’m starting to wonder if we should dub this column “LEO Weekly’s sushi report.” We’ve heralded the arrival of the high-tone hiko-A-mon in Westport Village; the family-style Hanabi out in Prospect; and the tiny but excellent Oishii Sushi in the Highlands.

Now welcome Asahi Japanese. The good news is that Asahi adds St. Matthews to the sushi-in-every-neighborhood sweepstakes. The not-so-good news is that it replaces the delightful Sahara Café, a Persian restaurant that really should have survived.

But that’s life in the restaurant biz, I fear, and if Sahara is a sad loss, Asahi is a worthy addition. It’s a short ride for us – maybe 60 cents worth of petrol at $4-something a gallon – so we’ve been in a number of times, trying a variety of Japanese dishes but usually simply bellying up to the seven-seat sushi bar to sample the art of Chef Yong Bong Tak.

If the chef looks familiar, that may be because he copped a Louisville Magazine “Best of Louisville” award for his work in 2004 at Osaka Japanese in Clifton. Sushi is clearly still his forte. The bill of fare offers a decent selection of Japanese appetizers (from $3.50 for an order of healthy green edamame soybeans to $13.95 for fried lobster-tail tempura) and a couple dozen main dishes, many of them Korean-accented (from $7.95 for tempura udon, thick Japanese wheat noodles in broth with crispy tempura, to $18.95 for a dinner deluxe combo of chicken tempura, Asian-style barbecue beef ribs and veggie tempura).

But it’s the sushi lists that run on and on through more selections than you’ll find golfers at the Ryder Cup. The main menu offers oversize sushi collections served on large wooden boats (from $35.95 to an eye-popping $99.95 for the Asahi Special for four). Turn to the regular sushi menu for about 70 more sushi delights, including a short list of nigiri (bits of fish perched on balls of rice) and a long list of rolls (rice rolled around tasty fillings and sliced into bite-size rounds). But wait! There’s more. Yet another list features 40 more House Special rolls, more adventurous creations that typically feature a selection of goodies rolled inside the rice with still more seafood tidbits neatly arranged on top.

Prices vary widely, and sushi can certainly mount up if you go in hungry and eat a lot, but prices are fair by local sushi standards, with most nigiri marked at $3 to $4.50 for a pair, and the rolls from $3 to $15 or so.

I’m a sucker for the basic Japanese-restaurant salad, a simple bowl of crisp, cold iceberg lettuce topped with a pale-orange, tart-sweet ginger dressing. I could save a lot of money if I learned how to make that stuff at home.

An appealing main course, yakisoba ($10.95) was light yet filling, thin stir-fried wheat noodles tossed with scallions, crisp bok choy cabbage and (optionally for $2) tender boneless chicken, kicked up with a savory-salty sauce with an elusive scent of Korean spices.

Most of the sushi rolls are made with sticky white rice but omit the usual black nori seaweed. Nigiri are often garnished with little treats like fine-snipped scallions or salty bonito flakes. They are generously proportioned – a big piece of fish on a smallish ball of rice – a treat for American diners, if a bit larger than the authentic Japanese bite-size. They also lack the usual “glue” of fiery green wasabi that holds the fish on the rice.

Asahi Japanese
The exterior of Asahi in St. Matthews.

In a formal sushi competition, these variations might lose the chef a point or two. Me, I eat them, I’m happy. I’ve particularly enjoyed tuna ($4.50), yellowtail ($4.50), red snapper ($3.95) and meaty, vinegary mackerel ($3.95) among the nigiri. Roll favorites have included the Hawaiian (California roll inside, squares of tuna and caviar on top) and the spectacular-looking Rainbow Roll ($10.50), a horseshoe-shaped roll topped with five colors of fish and avocado to make a work of edible art.

For dessert, a complimentary valencia orange, artfully carved, is presented as a light, palate-cleansing after-dinner treat. We generally get away for $50 or so including a generous tip; a pretty good neighborhood for a filling sushi dinner.

Asahi Japanese Restaurant
3701 Lexington Road, Suite No. 2
Robin Garr’s rating: 78 points