Let's face it: There is no truly great Japanese cuisine in Baltimore. You have to travel about an hour south to D.C. for the culinary innovation of, say, the venerable but inventive Sushi-Ko, or the deeply authentic and exquisitely fine Makoto to taste truly transcendent Nipponese fare.
What Baltimore does have is a number of decent sushi bars whose menus also sport a roundup of the usual suspects-respectable versions of tempura, katsu, and teriyaki. But among those many choices, Minato has long ranked high on locals' list of favorites.
Master chef Alex Tran is a canny and conscientious restaurateur, and his Mt. Vernon spot has always boasted a wide variety of pristine raw fish, some very respectable noodle dishes (nourishing udon in particular), and light, lovely tempura.
Located since 1990 in a warren of underground dining rooms in the Park Plaza building on Mt. Vernon Square, Minato moved to more fashionable above-ground digs last summer. The new Minato (1013 N. Charles St., 410-332-0332), just a few blocks from the old spot, is bright and streamlined, with the front room boasting a sizeable sushi bar, polished wood floors, acid green chairs, walls sculpted with wave patterns, and a multicolored light-fixture doodad that looks very, well, Tokyo. It also adjusted its name to Minato Sushi Bar.
In the back of the restaurant, there's a spacious, slightly more elegant dining room, but the entire space seems designed to attract a younger, hipper crowd than Minato's slightly dowdy former quarters.
Like the décor, the new menu is sleeker, pared of some unspectacular Vietnamese offerings, and packed with more appetizers designed for sampling with friends-a mix of very good savory dumplings, bites of fried and grilled seafood, and pretty little plates of sushi.
From the sushi bar, we loved several plates: tender, lightly grilled squid wrapped around tuna and salmon; translucent slices of blushing raw snapper; and an unctuous monkfish liver paté. We have to say, though, that nothing we ate beat the sheer pleasure and variety of a huge platter of maki, rolls bearing all sorts of delights in their juxtaposition of textures and tastes.
Minato exceeds at maki, no doubt about it. Entrees from the kitchen-those katsus and teriyakis-are serviceable, but we could wish for more invention.
Of the kitchen specialties, noodle dishes are still our favorite, including one leftover from the Vietnamese menu, a pho chicken whose broth would do any grandma proud.
All in all, we'd choose the new Minato for everyday Japanese eating over any number of in-town sushi spots, for a number of reasons: The atmosphere is incredibly pleasant, the service is fun, the sushi is never less than super-fresh, and the food is fine, if not wildly fabulous. When we need fabulous, we'll be heading to D.C. until Sushi-Ko opens a Baltimore branch.