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RESTAURANTS / MAX JACOBSON

In Tsuru's Ersatz Perch, Look No Further Than Sushi Bar

February 28, 1991|MAX JACOBSON

The crane (tsuru) is a symbol of longevity in Japan. The Japanese revere these awkward birds to the point of superstition. It's a symbol they do not take lightly.

That's why I sensed something amiss upon entering Tsuru, a restaurant perched directly above the Coast Highway in the Newport Classic Inn.

Forget that Tsuru tries hard to look as if it belongs in Japan. It's brimming with ersatz Japanese artifacts, like empty sake barrels and commercial-looking replicas of 18th-Century woodblock prints. The booths are divided by giant birch panels, and there is a show cart filled with fancy lacquerware. You walk right by a sushi bar to get to your table.

But as I passed the player piano (a Yamaha, to be sure, performing a rendition of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood"), my first thought was that the music seemed a bit jarring for so peaceful a room. Then I noticed the chairs--shiny black ones with gaudy, fan-shaped backs that seemed totally out of character for a place with so solemn a namesake.

Then I had a wild realization. I had stumbled into a Chinese sushi bar.

Seconds later I was seated at the sushi bar (topped with blue marble--another anomaly), chatting with chef Bill Ho, a native of Kaoshung, Taiwan. Ho is a fascinating fellow who speaks four languages ("eight when I'm drunk," he says): Japanese, two dialects of Chinese and fluent English.

It turns out that the hotel is owned by a Chinese man from Taiwan named Mr. Kou, and that the restaurant also has a Chinese kitchen. It's not as if you could tell any of that from a name like Tsuru.

Ho then explained how Taiwan was occupied by Japan for the better part of the early 20th Century (it wasn't until 1945 that Japan quit the island) and the Taiwanese developed an enduring passion for Japanese cuisine. (It seems to be the only aspect of Japanese culture Taiwan has embraced.)

I was all psyched up to eat Japanese food, though, and somehow, Ho's historical explanation did not stop my stomach from growling. Luckily, his food took care of that.

Because Ho, without the benefit of formal training, is a highly competent sushi man. Observe him dishing up ginger and wasabi, shouting hai (Japanese for "yes") and deftly handling his double-edged knife, and you'll assume he's Japanese anyway. Taste his creations and you will swear he is.

You'll want to start with something fresh and simple: sweet, creamy uni (sea urchin) with its briny, slightly medicinal aftertaste; anago (sea eel), a firm-fleshed, slightly smoky chunk of it on a little mound of rice; or perhaps some good, fresh buri, or yellowtail, served as sashimi in five slices. At any rate, ask Ho for whatever he favors that day.

Then you can progress to some of the more elaborate forms that sushi takes here. His salmon skin roll is one--cooked salmon in a wrapped cone of crisp Japanese seaweed ( nori ) , with daikon sprouts and scallions. You might also want to try crab-and-avocado-filled California roll, a savory spicy tuna roll he calls TNT or a super-elaborate creation called rainbow roll, with several species of fish and a multitude of flavors.

My only complaint about the hand rolls has to do with the seaweed the restaurant uses. Nori can be deliciously crunchy, but Tsuru's nori tastes a bit stale.

You will want to move into the dining room for hot dishes, although Ho permits you to eat them at his bar. There is a full menu of both Japanese and Chinese specialties in this dining room, prepared with good ingredients and little imagination. You won't find much you haven't seen before.

Appetizers like gyoza, the Japanese pot stickers, are always fun to eat. Tsuru's gyoza plate is six well-seasoned, meat-filled dumplings, each with one side pan-crisped to a crackling crunch. Furthermore, the dumplings are served in a delicate wicker basket, a Japanese touch you seldom get when you order dumplings in a Chinese restaurant.

A Chinese dish like stir-fried minced chicken with water chestnut in little lettuce leaves would make another good beginning, as would the one they call beef roll, a mini-roulade of beefsteak rolled around scallions and fresh asparagus. But if you're after lightness, nothing can compete with sushi.

So remember that if you order a full dinner. The dinners here are substantial, accompanied by a bland miso soup, a dish of shredded cabbage salad with Thousand Island dressing and plenty of that good short-grained Japanese rice.

The Japanese entrees don't match the Chinese. There is an overly sweet salmon teriyaki and some ponderous, slightly greasy tempura, but then tempura is almost never good outside Japan. Tsuru's has a tasty batter, but too much of it, and the vegetables, cooked at too high a temperature for too short a time, come out rock-hard.

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