Sitting in the parking lot in front of Sono Bana at 6:30 last Friday night, my husband and I eyed the restaurant we were about to enter. Except for a new sign and a new name, it seems nothing about the former Tsuru Japanese restaurant has changed in the 22 years since it opened. "I hope it's good," said my husband hesitantly as we considered my assignment. We felt about as enthusiastic as a couple of teenagers sent to the backyard to pull weeds on a hot summer day. You see, we never really liked Tsuru when it was Tsuru. Three times we tried the place, and each time we left knowing that there's better sushi and service elsewhere in town. Our mood did not lift at the sight of a handwritten sign on the door that said Sono Bana's menu and management are the same as Tsuru's, only the name has changed. But our moods did lift immediately when we spotted our friends, Tina and Josh, with whom we were dining.
First job: order beers. We were immediately greeted by a friendly waitress who laughed easily and who quickly delivered a round of 22-ounce Sapporos and Kirins ($6.50 each). The menu at Sono Bana features the usual Japanese fare like tempura, noodle dishes, sushi and sashimi. There are appetizers like gyoza ($5.95) and yakitori ($4.45), as well as dinners of salmon, halibut or shrimp teriyaki ($11.95-$12.95), and chicken or beef sukiyaki ($9.95-$10.75). Our waitress's speed and friendly demeanor evoked a glimmer of hope. Perhaps the place has changed more than just the name. Looking over the selection of nigiri and maki, I convinced my husband to try the Love Dish ($29.95), which promised to be a miniature smorgasbord of raw delights: six types of nigiri (two pieces each), three kinds of sashimi (two pieces each) and one love roll. Tina and Josh ordered the same, and we all joked about how a meal called the Love Dish could be the start of a beautiful evening.
Small bowls of iceberg lettuce topped with carrot ginger dressing soon arrived. Tina was a little put off by the dressing's flavor and the use of inexpensive iceberg. Dan didn't care for it, either, but Josh and I ate most of ours. Small bowls of watery-tasting miso soup soon followed. Before too long, the two Love Dish platters arrived, each decked out in colorful nigiri, maki and sashimi. Picking up our chopsticks, my husband and I exchanged a quick kiss, then dove in. Plump mussels and salty-sweet strips of broiled eel were quickly consumed, as were the other nigiri offerings of octopus, ahi, yellowtail and shrimp. But the dry texture of the tuna and crab-stuffed love roll was not helped even by a dip in soy sauce. The sashimi slices were sloppily cut and we really scratched our heads over the pickled mackerel. Maybe it's a delicacy in Japan. Four words popped into my head in bold letters as I chewed the strange morsel: salty, fishy, pungent, oily.
My memories of the restaurant formerly known as Tsuru were not great, but the food and service up to this point at Sono Bana were faring all right. What tweaked me toward the end was the eight empty glasses and six used soup and rice bowls the waitress left on our table through dessert and after we paid the bill. I remember from my waitressing days—never leave a table with empty hands. Sitting at a cluttered table long after I've finished eating is irritating enough to mar the memory of an average meal. My final assessment of Sono Bana: same place, different name.
—Jennifer Hernandez is quite a love dish.