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By MARK NIXON
Before we get to my international arch-nemesis, the Dr. Evil of dining utensils, let us begin with two words that conjure tranquility.
Mountain. Water. Or as they say in Japan: San. Su.
Marry the two words and you have Sansu, a remarkable restaurant anchoring one end of a strip mall in East Lansing. Sansu is, to anyone missing Japan or wanting to sample its cuisine, a gift from afar.
I’m no expert in Japanese cuisine. I defer to Judy, who has traveled and studied in that great land many times. Yet we both agree that Sansu has the best Japanese food in Greater Lansing, and well beyond.
From painstakingly prepared sushi to hearty udon noodles; from perfectly done shrimp tempura to the heady smokiness of steaming miso soup; whatever cranny we explored on the menu, Sansu delivered.
Dinner entrees automatically come with a small salad and piping hot miso soup. The salad is served very cold with a generous dab of dressing — I tasted toasted sesame and a hint of peanut sauce. The overall effect was perfection. A counterpoint to the cold salad was the miso soup. If you haven’t tried this staple of Japanese cuisine, do yourself a favor. Just so you know: Unless you request a spoon, the soup reaches your table in a small bowl. Put bowl to lips, and sip — a very Japanese thing to do.
Now, let’s turn to war. I have waged war on chopsticks for decades. They have won every battle. I am too clumsy, too eager to get food in my mouth. Chopsticks, to my Michigan Country Boy brain, were invented by sadistic monks who found them a convenient way to enforce fasting.
Judy handles chopsticks with élan. When I traveled to Japan, I carried a folding fork in my pocket. I tried chopsticks, but, overcome by hunger, I sometimes reached for the fork.
I said that Sansu delivers, and indeed it does — forks! — one of humankind’s great gifts to those plagued by fumble-finger-itis. Most folks sitting around us deftly used chopsticks. After 30 seconds of dropping sushi back onto the plate, I surrendered to the fork.
During two visits we ordered 10 appetizers and entrees. Sansu takes seriously the adage, “First you eat with your eyes.” There is simple but refined artistry in the presentation of each dish. Even the stoneware sauce bowls have a simple elegance.
Here is a rundown of some of the tastes Sansu delivered to our table:
— The beef udon ($14) is a sturdy soup worthy of dinner on a bitter January night. The rich broth and slices of tender beef mingled with thick udon noodles served ever-so-al dente.
— The sushi sampler ($11) held the glories of fresh slices of tuna and salmon, married to bite-size mounds of sticky rice. If you get a chance, visit the sushi bar where several sushi chefs intently prepare these delicacies. It’s a show. Friends Bruce and Jan accompanied us on our second visit, and Bruce later emailed us: “Jan’s salmon roll and my tuna roll were exceptional. Not only would we go again, we’d tell our friends they should try a meal or two there also.”
— Bento boxes (price varies depending on what you order; roughly $18). You see bento boxes all over Japan. Essentially, they are a mini-buffet all in one compartmentalized box, easy for a take-home meal or a picnic to take from home. Sansu’s iteration comes in a stylish, lacquered wooden box. My beef bento box held a sampling of sushi, shrimp tempura and tender beef slices, accompanied by broccoli and wafer-thin slices of ginger. Hate to sound like a broken record, but ... this was amazing.
— Pan-fried gyoza ($7). These chicken and pork dumplings hold their own against gyoza I’ve tasted in Japan.
— Chicken katsu ($15). These panko-encrusted slices of fried chicken breast have the perfect ratio of light breading to the moist, tender meat. I thought it was smart to serve the chicken on a wire mesh rack so that the meat didn’t puddle in its own grease.
Sansu’s menu is expansive. There are eel dishes but, personally, no thank you. They remind me of snakes. If you imbibe in alcohol, I recommend a dry, warm sake. There’s also a sake sampler for $7.
If you plan on dining here, it’s best to make reservations. We did so both times, for an early seating during weeknights. On both occasions, Sansu was brimming with people, including many who stood in the lobby awaiting a table.
When I review Lansing-area restaurants, I think of promise and potential. In Sansu’s case, I’d say the verdict is clear: Promises made, promises kept.
By GABRIELLE LAWRENCE
It’s always thrilling and a bit surprising for me when I head out for lunch or dinner and have to wait for a table. I think it’s because I so badly want to see local restaurants be successful and for people to skip over Applebee’s or TGI Friday’s to spend their money supporting something home-grown.
In the Lansing area, we are lucky to have several restaurants that serve two of my favorite types of cuisine — Middle Eastern and Japanese. While visiting Japan a few years ago, I was sure that I would return home and lament the lack of good sushi in our area.
To the contrary, Mid-Michigan has some incredible sushi restaurants. Since I have a husband who doesn’t love sashimi quite as much as I do, I was excited to have a great excuse to visit Sansu over the past few weeks.
Mr. She Ate and I went to Sansu for an early dinner a few weeks ago and were told at 5:30 p.m. that the dining room was full, but there were spots available at the sushi bar. As I’ve said, the economic success of a thoughtful, locally-owned restaurant is more important to me than my own comfort, and we happily bellied up to the bar. We ordered a seafood pancake from our server, who disclosed that he was new on the job.
Being unfamiliar with the appetizer, I agreed when he asked me if I wanted two pancakes instead of just one. This was a mistake, as the pancake was the circumference of a dinner plate and laden with shrimp, scallops and squid. My mistake in ordering was further exacerbated by the fact that the pancake was void of flavor, and now we had enough left over that Mr. She Ate had to eat it for lunch the next day.
We had better luck with the salmon sashimi — one of my perpetual favorites at any sushi restaurant. When people inexperienced with sushi get nervous, most of them are fixated on the raw fish aspect. However, sushi can contain many other things such as smoked or cooked fish, vegetables, cream cheese or no seafood at all. Sashimi, on the other hand, is thinly-sliced, straight-up raw fish. Mr. She Ate was a sport and actually tried a few bites of the fresh salmon, which pleasantly surprised me as I imagined the healthy fats coursing through his veins.
After much debate, we ordered the Alaskan, Michigan and Maki Maki roll. While I love the uber-healthy miso soup and sashimi, mama also likes her tempura, and the Maki Maki roll commanded most of my attention. Essentially, a tempura-battered roll has fried breading either included inside or on top of it. The addition of tempura gives any roll a fantastic texture and a hefty increase in caloric intake, but, for the Maki Maki roll, I threw caution to the wind and ate almost the entire thing. The roll had spicy tuna, avocado, wasabi mayo and was drizzled with a spicy fusion sauce. Put me to bed, I’m done.
The Michigan roll was my runner-up. With crab salad on the inside, the roll was topped with more fresh salmon. The Maki Maki roll needed no wasabi. The Michigan roll needed just the smallest hint. When I feel the need for a little more flavor with my sushi, I dip a chopstick into the dollop of wasabi — the green paste on the side of your plate — and mix it into my tiny bowl of soy sauce to make the wasabi more palatable and slightly dilute the nose-blowing intensity of the root’s flavor.
The Alaskan roll, arguably the most entry-level sushi of the bunch, found me letting each bite languish in my soy sauce dish while I tried to add more flavor. That said, the Alaskan roll is a great option for people such as my brother, who wouldn’t be caught dead near a piece of sashimi. Salmon, asparagus, cucumber, crab stick and avocado never intimidated anyone and make for a great entry to sushi eating.
When I returned for lunch, I decided to take a different turn and ordered a salmon bento box. These boxes come with several different compartments filled with lunch components. In my case, there was seaweed salad, orange slices, grapes, a tiny egg roll, tempura-battered vegetables, three pieces of a California roll, white sushi rice, a dumpling and a large piece of teriyaki salmon on top of steamed vegetables. In short, there was an absolute ton of food.
After gobbling up the tempura vegetables and seaweed salad, I made rounds through everything else and took several bites of the teriyaki salmon before deciding that the sauce was just too sweet for my taste. The bento was an interesting new thing for me to try, but considering just how much I love the sushi and sashimi, I’ll take advantage of my opportunities to imbibe and stick to what Sansu does best.
Mon-Sat 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m. & 4:30 - 10 p.m.
Sunday 3 p.m. - 10 p.m.
4750 S. Hagadorn Rd., East Lansing
(517) 333 - 1933, sansu-sushi.com