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Japan House is a welcome addition to a neighborhood that suffers from a dearth of interesting fare. 

Many Happy Returns

South Side residents have one less reason to venture north across the James River. The newly opened Japan House on Forest Hill Avenue brings Richmond's Rive Gauche that metropolitan staple — sushi.

Japan House's exterior has the unfortunate appearance of a burger and fries joint, but its interior is distinctly of the sushi bar genre. It lacks the exquisite Japanese aesthetic that sometimes graces restaurants of this ilk, but rice paper framed in wood and Japanese wall hangings effectively drew my eyes from the abundance of dinerlike sheet-metal covering the wall behind the counter.

The extensive menu at Japan House covers all the ground we've come to expect from Japanese sushi restaurants — assorted traditional appetizers, sushi and sashimi, donburi rice dishes, teriyaki and tempura entrees, and various noodle dishes. Dinner entrees run from $5.75 for a donburi dish featuring a pork cutlet served with egg and rice to $21.95 for the chef's choice sushi-sashimi meal. Between those extremes are a variety of tempura, teriyaki and charbroiled offerings averaging about $12.

According to my sushi-connoisseur guest, a good Japanese restaurant aspires to produce classic dishes true to established and recognized form. Thus, while some innovation is acceptable — perhaps even expected — the true test is in adherence to formal technique and presentation.

Servers were reasonably attentive and tried to be helpful — though I had the impression that the staff was still working some kinks out. On one visit the sushi chef kindly accommodated our request for an order of Inari sushi not listed on the menu. Surprisingly, however, on a second visit a server flatly rejected our request to have a Futo-Maki roll sans crab.

Seaweed Salad ($3.95) met our every expectation — a small bowl of toothsome, bright green seaweed nicely dressed with sesame and chili pepper. The traditional Agedashi appetizer ($3.25) — lightly battered tofu cubes served with bonito flakes and a sweetened soy-kombu sauce — could have been a tad crispier but was otherwise quite satisfactory. Japan House does tempura very well and our Vegetable Tempura appetizer ($3.50), which included zucchini, sweet potato, eggplant and acorn squash, was much enjoyed. My guest pronounced the ubiquitous miso soup excellent in flavor and temperature but slightly lacking in consistency.

The House Salad honors the Japanese affinity for iceberg lettuce and comes with a pleasant tangy ginger dressing, which unfortunately left a pool of watery liquid at the bottom of the bowl. A Seafood Teriyaki entree ($15.95) arrived sizzling on cast iron and consisted of flaky white fish, shrimp, scallops, carrots and celery glazed in a thick, mildly sweet teriyaki sauce. I felt the dish was slightly overpriced and thought the sauce masked the subtleties of the seafood. On a subsequent visit, however, the flavor of salmon was strong enough to compete with the teriyaki and this resulted in a superior effect.

Everything we sampled was good, but when I return — and I will — it will be for the sushi. A la Carte sushi ranges from $3.75 to $8.50 and includes most of the familiar Nigiri sushi and rolled sushi. Japan House's sushi rice is delicately seasoned and perfectly cooked. All the fish taste exceptionally fresh and every presentation is pleasing to the eye. My guest affectionately referred to the Negihama (yellowtail roll) as the Big Mac of sushi and proclaimed Japan House's on par with some of the better he'd had. Tako (octopus) was a fascinating textural experience and had a subtle but appealing flavor. Maguro (tuna) my personal favorite, lacked the vibrant color it sometimes has, but was delicious and melted in my mouth like a fine smoked salmon.

For those wary of fish, there are a variety of excellent vegetarian options including Kappa Maki (cucumber roll), Natto (cultured soybeans), Tamago (egg), and if you're lucky, Inari (tofu skin pillows stuffed with rice).

This is a good Japanese restaurant of a caliber that seems to attract a significant Asian clientele. I recommend that you center your meal around the sushi and round it out with appetizers, salads and soup. Japan House is an asset to this community — and it's especially welcome in a neighborhood that suffers from a dearth of interesting
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