Fine dining at Asuka: Come for the fried rice; stay for the filet
Asuka Japanese Steak House had me at fried rice. This little gem of a restaurant, which has been introducing traditional and contemporary Japanese fare to Port Charlotte diners for more than 20 years, wooed me with its buttery, moist rice, undoubtedly the best I’ve ever had. It was love at first bite and each subsequent forkful I stole from my dining companion’s entree.
Fried rice is all-too-often soulless and dry, over-seasoned with soy sauce and flecked with pork so unnaturally red it makes you wonder. Asuka’s fried rice was the star of a very good meal and an enjoyable dining experience, delicate and generous on egg, just the right amount of onion and carrots, and a pleasing underlying flavor of real butter. It certainly outshone the plain white rice accompanying my bento box, and during my next visit I’ll be sure to order it no matter the upcharge or just as a main course. It’s good to know that this fine fried rice is available as a side, with the option of adding chicken, steak, shrimp or a combination of the proteins.
Tucked among the other businesses at the Murdock Carousel Shopping Center just south of the Port Charlotte Town Center, Asuka is a true hidden treasure that consistently receives 4.5- and 5-star ratings on social media websites such as TripAdvisor, Yelp and Google. Unless Asuka is already on your radar or you’ve seen it while visiting another restaurant, you’re missing out on the sophisticated mastery of Japanese-style cooking.
Like many Japanese steakhouses, Asuka offers dinner-and-a-show hibachi, prepared at three large stations, each with two grills and 16 seats. We selected one of three quiet banquettes at the back of the building and were promptly greeted by a server who presented us with green and red menus. She also helped us navigate the many options on the green menu, explaining that traditional dinners such as tempura, teriyaki, katsu and noodles are served with white rice. Asuka also offers a comprehensive sushi menu, including special salads and makimono. The 15-item red menu teppanyaki dishes are prepared on flat iron griddles and accompanied by that glorious fried rice.
I started my journey to Japan with plum wine, a not-too-sweet version that was served nice and cold — perfect for a balmy Florida summer evening. Asuka offers beer and wine only, hot or cold sake and a dozen bottled beers, including several Asian selections.
We ordered two appetizers from the list of 12. The shrimp and vegetable tempura was delivered tableside piping hot with a thin, light panko-type batter that wasn’t greasy and didn’t overpower its contents. The app included three large shrimp — obvious by their shape — as was the broccoli floret. The slices of orange squash and white and sweet potatoes had us guessing before each nibble. The oil used in the tempura process is cholesterol free.
The gyoza was a nice take on traditional dumplings, each pouch stuffed with seasoned shrimp, garlic and green onions. Warm and tender on the inside, perfectly cooked to a light crispness on the outside, and accompanied by a white sauce similar to a mild ranch and another with notes of ginger.
Our entrees included ginger-dressed iceberg salads with shredded red cabbage and carrot slivers and a simple mushroom broth soup that was a little on the salty side and a bit smoky.
For my entrée, I opted for the traditional menu, selecting the spicy pork bento box — one of seven available. Each compartment contained several popular menu items, creating an all-inclusive dish of seaweed salad, four pieces of sushi, a mound of white rice, two gyoza dumplings and a mini eggroll. The pork was tender and amply portioned and tossed with slices of onion, zucchini and carrots and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. Its compartment was the deepest and the not-overly spicy sauce added a rich complexity of the meat. The only disappointment was the seaweed, which might have benefited from a dash of sesame oil or toasted seeds. Wasabi and pickled ginger would also have been nice with the sushi.
My companion selected the ultimate teppanyaki — the combination of shrimp, scallops, lobster and filet mignon served with al dente veggies and buttery fried rice. The portions of meat and seafood were quite generous, and the filet was a melt-in-your-mouth standout.
We were sorry to learn that Asuka had sold out of dessert. The restaurant typically offers five flavors of ice cream: ginger, red bean, green tea, mango and vanilla. We visited on a Wednesday night, a day before the Thursday shipment.
Admittedly I was a little skeptical about the dining experience awaiting me after spying the food posters displayed in Asuka’s windows. I couldn’t help but think of the stark interiors of those ubiquitous Chinese restaurants in almost every Publix-anchored shopping center — bathed in bright light with a backlit board above the counter displaying faded images of a cornucopia of entrée possibilities. What a relief to walk into Asuka’s serene atmosphere with its subdued lighting, soft palette of grays, whites and neutrals, and an almost spa-like interior with orchid arrangements, soft floralprinted fabric panels and shoji screens. Very personal and relaxing, Asuka offers intimate dining experiences behind the floral panels or at the banquettes and small wood-topped sushi bar, both at the rear of the building.
With so many delicious options, I’m bound to return to Asuka and try the noodles, the breaded and deep-fried Katsu meats and sample my way around the bento and teppanyaki menus. And I’m sure any quick trip near the restaurant will require a to-go order of that fried rice.
We’ve got Asuka’s number, and it’s on speed dial. ¦
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