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RESTAURANT REVIEW + PHOTOS: Kudos, Ninja Bar, Sushi & Grill, for Japanese menu

By Eric E. Harrison

This article was published September 14, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

the-lobster-and-filet-mignon-hibachi-entree-comes-with-fried-rice-and-grilled-vegetables-at-ninja-bar-sushi-grill-on-cantrell-road

The lobster and filet mignon hibachi entree comes with fried rice and grilled vegetables at Ninja Bar, Sushi & Grill on Cantrell Road.

Ninja Bar, Sushi & Grill

Address: Dogwood Crossing Shopping Center, 5501 Ranch Drive, Little Rock

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4:30-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4:30-10 p.m. Friday & Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 4:30-8:30 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Japanese

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: Full bar

Reservations: Yes

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 367-8659

ninjasushilittlerock.com

facebook.com/NinjaSushi7th

Click here for larger versions
Photos by Eric Harrison

When Osaka Japanese Restaurant opened in 2004, out west on Cantrell Road, it wasn't exactly unique -- Little Rock had been experiencing a sushi boom. But it was a trailblazer for that part of town. There were no other Japanese restaurants/sushi bars along the entire stretch of Cantrell, not just west of Interstate 430 but west of Riverdale.

In the interim, competition has sprung up, from Sky Modern Japanese Restaurant in the Pleasant Ridge Town Center and, more recently, from Sushi Cafe West a little ways east of that. Also in the interim, the building of a Goodwill store and drop-off center partially screened the restaurant from traffic on the major thoroughfare, which made it hard for folks to remember it was there.

Osaka departed the scene earlier this year, recently replaced by Ninja Bar, Sushi & Grill, from the same family that owns and operates Wasabi downtown. And while there's nothing extra-special about it, it's worth a stop if you're in the neighborhood. The food is good, the prices are competitive, the atmosphere is pleasant and the staff is very friendly. (There's even a line in the new logo: "We Are Here to Serve You.") They were, however, perhaps a little overwhelmed on a recent weekend evening when the place started to fill up a bit, perhaps more business than they were expecting.

A streetside banner and signs alert passersby there's a new restaurant occupying the western anchor of the strip part of the two-part Dogwood Crossing shopping center. More signs stuck into the grassy verge in front of the restaurant let patrons know they can take advantage of two delivery services, BiteSquad and Waitr.

The interior layout hasn't changed that much -- there's table seating on each side of a divider; the bar is still on the east wall, with sushi bar on the south side and spaces along the west side where you can dine in an American adaptation of traditional Japanese style, low tables over a pit so you can comfortably extend your legs and shoeless feet underneath. There are more tables in an alcove dining room at the front.

The new management has removed Osaka's under-used Mongolian grill set-up, extending the handsomely rebuilt bar into it. And while the sushi bar looks the same, it, too, has been rebuilt. There are several flat-screen TVs, tuned to sports when it's appropriate and network entertainment otherwise.

The menu is very similar to Wasabi's, with a very extensive sushi list, divided into nigiri and sashimi, rolls, deep-fried rolls, baked rolls, Signature Rolls "A," Signature Rolls "B" and "Sushi Roll With Fire." There are no hibachi tables, so you don't get a show with dinner (which probably holds the prices down); hibachi entrees are prepared and plated in the kitchen. There are also a couple of noodle entrees and a broad spectrum of appetizers.

Speaking of appetizers, we can recommend the edamame ($5), on which the kitchen was sparing with the salt (hurrah!). Our trio of spring rolls ($3) were crisp and tasty, but, puzzlingly, still a little cool in the center. We liked our steamed gyoza ($5), but next time we order the dumplings we'll probably ask the kitchen to fry or pan-fry them -- crisper would have made them better. Ninja's miso soup is fairly strong; you can order it a la carte ($3) or with hibachi entrees (onion soup, also $3, is an option).

If you're not too familiar with sashimi, or you're looking to graduate from nigiri (fish atop rice, what most people think of when they think of sushi) to sashimi (just the fish), try the Sashimi Sampler appetizer ($9), two thick-cut pieces each of salmon, tuna and red snapper.

The simplest of the four rolls we enjoyed was the Marilyn Monroe (Signature "A," $12.50), spicy tuna wrapped with cucumber in rice and topped with regular tuna and drizzled with ponzu sauce. The Red Dragon roll (Signature "B," also $12.50) was a little more complex and challenging: fried soft-shell crab and avocado inside, topped with eel and a blend of spicy sauce and teriyaki-like eel sauce.

If you're feeling a bit more adventurous, try the Flaming Fire roll ($15.50), an aluminum-foil pyramid that arrived ablaze in blue-white flames, which, once extinguished and unwrapped, was a bit of an anti-climax, at least to look at: spicy tuna, topped with tuna and "white tuna" (escolar), coated in a sort of dull vermilion spicy mayonnaise-eel sauce blend.

Our fourth roll could, on the one hand, be labeled as even more adventurous; on the other, it might be a good recommendation for those you've persuaded to try sushi but who don't particularly like fish. The McCain roll ($13.50) is crab meat, avocado and seared beef tenderloin inside the rice, topped with green onions, cheddar cheese and white sauce and eel sauce. It was delicious, but we had one complaint: you're supposed to be able to put each single piece of a roll in your mouth entirely, and these were too big to pass without some dismantling.

There was some confusion on the price of our Garlic Udon Noodles (it wasn't clear whether $10 was just for noodles tossed with sauce, cabbage and carrot shreds, or whether chicken, beef or shrimp was included, or whether you pay extra for extra meat -- $1 chicken, $1.50 beef or shrimp, $3 combo). The ropy, firm noodles were delicious, and our waiter negotiated the price down so we didn't pay anything extra, moneywise, for the beef we added, but we paid for it otherwise: while some of it was reasonably tender, most of it was overcooked, tough and chewy.

We went a little fancy for our hibachi entree and ordered the lobster tail-filet mignon combo ($26.50), which includes soup, salad, grilled vegetables and a large portion of the fried rice for which most places charge extra. It made for a bit of a busy plate (the lobster being partially reinserted into the tail shell), but the lobster and steak (medium rare as we ordered it) were both quite tender and the rice was excellent. The grilled vegetables consisted mostly, alas, of zucchini and onions.

Weekend on 09/14/2017

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