Sunday, July 14, 2013

Roppongi Sushi & Bar - Huntersville

Recently, I met two of my brothers to grab some dinner at Roppongi Sushi & Bar in Huntersville. The building is located along the eastern edge of the Rosedale Shopping Center behind the Shell station. I grew up with that location occupied by a Friendly's (that always seemed to mysteriously smell like vomit...). Some of my earliest memories are of trekking to Friendly's with my parents, ordering a Clown Cone Sundae,1 digging out the Reese's Pieces "eyes" to eat first, "shaving" the clown's head so I could eat his whipped cream "hair," and then slowly devouring the rest of the sundae. Unfortunately Clown Cone Sundae's weren't popular enough for the Lake Norman crowd and the restaurant permanently closed its doors a few years ago after briefly relocating to the Torrence Creek Shopping Center across Gilead Road. 

While the exterior of the building still screams "Friendly's," Roppongi has done a great job revamping the interior to make the restaurant seem swanky and sophisticated. Roppongi is dominated by taupes, browns, grays, a few pops of red, and texture, texture, texture. Stone and brick-covered walls are adorned with three-dimensional artwork representing Japanese characters and images, including depictions of six trees, the literal meaning of "roppongi."

Big brother's selection of tako nigiri and three rolls:
shrimp tempura, California, and spicy salmon. 
My brothers and I were seated at a large booth and we placed an order for the fried calamari while we perused the sushi menu. I'd seen advertisements that on Monday through Thursday, Roppongi's Chef's Specialty and House Signature Rolls are buy one get one half off. I feel like these kinds of specials usually come with a lot of caveats, so I was pleased to learn that there are a large number of options that are included with the BOGO deal (however our server gave us some conflicting information that made the bill a little bit of a surprise). After sending our server away four times while we tried to decide what to order, we finally selected some rolls and my older brother, David, ordered a few pieces of tako (gross). Despite the fact that I love calimari, including the whole squid pieces, there's something about eating poached octopus that makes me a little nauseous. However, older brother said that Roppongi's tako, while a little bit chewy, was tasty and on his re-order list. My little brother, Alex, and I chowed down on the calamari (sorry, failed to take a picture of it...) while big bro ate his octopi. Unfortunately, the calamari was rubbery and tasted like it had previously been frozen rather than prepared on-site. It is definitely not something I'll feel the need to order if I return to Roppongi. However, I'm not upset that we ordered it. I'm convinced that calamari is like pizza -even when it's bad, it's good and the Roppongi calamari was more than edible when dunked into the accompanying sweet sauce.

After all of the eight-armed creatures were devoured, our server delivered our sushi rolls. Big bro had placed the largest order -in addition to a California roll, he selected a tempura shrimp roll, a spicy salmon roll, and two more pieces of tako (clearly it got his seal of approval). Unfortunately, a lot of his selections were not included in the BOGO special because they were considered more "basic" rolls (I can't even find them in the online menu), but everything was assembled well, tasted fresh-ish, and was reasonably priced relative to comparable restaurants. Considering a container of Harris Teeter sushi costs $11.99 these days, springing for a non-BOGO $6 California roll still seemed like a steal. I was especially impressed by the effort that the Roppongi chefs put into each individual dish. The plating even seemed special -the sushi pieces were cut to uniform sizes and laid out artfully on the plate.  In addition to the slices of ginger and blob of wasabi that typically accompany sushi, each plate was adorned with a  few drizzles of sauces, a sprig of parsley, and a slice of carrot carved into the shape of a butterfly. 

The butterfly-shaped carrot was an attractive surprise
garnish for my Flying Philly Roll and Spider Roll.
Crispy Ninja Roll - deep fried and delicious

Alex and I both selected rolls off of the Chef's Specialty and House Signature lists, so they were all included in the BOGO special. I went with a Flying Philly Roll (smoked salmon, cream cheese, and cucumber topped with shrimp and avocado and drizzled in miso sauce) and a Spider Roll (I can't find this on their online menu, but it consisted of a tempura battered soft-shelled crab, cucumber, avocado, and masago). The Flying Philly Roll was a little disappointing, but I think this is a personal preference issue, so I can't fault Roppongi. I keep trying to convince myself that I like shrimp in sushi, but I think I need to accept that I don't. Somewhere in the sushi-making process, the shrimp turn rubbery and this roll was no exception. I ended up picking a lot of mine off of the roll, but it was otherwise very good. The proportion of fish to cream cheese and avocado was spot on -there was enough of the cuke/'cado combo to add flavor  to the roll without overwhelming the fish. I think that the soft-shelled crab in my Spider Roll was perfectly cooked, but the tempura batter had been allowed to cool for a little too long post-cooking and had gotten a little bit mushy along the way. Regardless of the less-than-stellar texture, the flavor was great. Overall, I preferred the Spider Roll to the Flying Philly Roll, but both were very good, especially when I dipped them into a little bit of the spicy mayo drizzled on the edge of my plate. 

Charlotte Roll
My little brother had selected the Charlotte Roll (deep fried shrimp tempura roll topped with spicy tuna, jalapeño, and tobiko) and the Crispy Ninja Roll (deep fried assorted fish and avocado roll on a bed of romaine lettuce with chef's special spicy sauce). Despite my love of all things fat and fried, I'm usually not a fan of a deep-fried roll because I feel like the technique dries out the fish, replacing that moisture with greasy, chewy batter. There is nothing I hate more than warm, dried out fish. However, as far as tempuras go, the roll was relatively light and the tuna was barely cooked and still cool in the center. Although I don't think Alex touched the romaine (he's not really a salad kind of guy), it was a nice, refreshing accompaniment to the fried roll. The Charlotte Roll was also tasty. I love peppers, particularly jalapeños, and the spicy pepper went well with the tempura shrimp. The contrast in textures between the jalapeño, the crunchy shrimp, and the raw, chopped spicy tuna was very nice. Once again, the roll had good ingredient proportions. My biggest issue with Roppongi would be the freshness of the ingredients. Quality-wise, the fish was definitely above grocery store sushi-level, but I don't think Roppongi is too selective about their fish and veggies. However, what should I reasonably expect from a place that advertises their BOGO special on billboard on the side of I-77?

At the end of our meal, there was a little bit of confusion over which items were included with special and which were full-priced, but once we paid up, we left full and happy. Around the lake, there aren't that many sushi options and it seems that Roppongi is trying to bring a much-needed high end vibe to an area dominated by quick serve Japanese food options. While I think execution could be improved and I question the freshness of the ingredients, Roppongi is a welcome change. I bet I'll make a return visit (simply due to the restaurant's proximity to my parents' house), but there is a lot of room for improvement and Roppongi only gets a 6/10.

1 A beautifully-written ode to the Clown Cone Sundae was published in Serious Eats last summer. I highly recommend reading it for anybody with a case of food-inspired nostalgia.

ROPPONGI Sushi & Bar on Urbanspoon


  1. The way you describe eating the Clown Cone Sundae is eerily reminiscent of the same description of a praying mantis eating her mate.

  2. Hmmmm... I'll think about that the next time I dismember my food before I eat it.