Editor’s Note: This restaurant has closed
An unrelenting club beat throbs: untz, untz, untz, untz. Behind each bar—cocktail and sushi—the normally gleaming white shelves loaded with bottles of liquor or stacks of plates slowly morph through a back-lit wheel of color. Blue. Violet. Magenta. Red. Green. From the bar stools, attractive gym-toned men contemplate the flock of lithe beauties teetering in four-inch heels and $300 jeans. Past the DJ booth in the lounge, couples draped over the low-slung black banquette running the length of the room nibble from white oval platters packed with freshly sliced fish. Over at the sushi bar, sushi chef James Kim and his assistants—decked out in black chef-wear and pin-striped fedoras—are hyper-focused, placing fat slivers of silken maguro (tuna), sake (salmon), and hamachi (yellowtail) on precisely constructed pellets of vinegary rice. Tonight, amid the martini-fueled atmosphere, lit low in a slightly sinister yet groovy David Lynch indigo, the fabulousness quotient at Beluga ranks high.
When Beluga arrived on the scene in 2000, there were fewer than a half-dozen places serving sushi in Greater Cincinnati. With a successful neighborhood restaurant already on his plate (Bangkok Thai Cuisine in Milford), owner Mike Hama, a native of Thailand, converted the former Melting Pot (and in a previous incarnation, a Zino’s pizzeria) into the area’s first sushi-meets-singles bar with a Euro-Asian dining room. A style that already had made a splash on both coasts (most notably Matsuhisa in Los Angeles and Nobu in New York City), the former fondue parlor was transformed into a sleek restaurant bedecked with polished blonde wood, white hot leather, and Zen cool. With a disco ball suspended from the dining room ceiling, Beluga initially raised a few eyebrows as it tried to meet the ever-cautious Cincinnatian’s notion of dining out.
One of the first local restaurants to merge a DJ with a dining environment, Beluga’s challenge was to serve the (generally) moneyed and more stable (read: older) dinner crowd while integrating the club boys and girls as the sun went down. They did this by luring diners with a nearly serene environment and eclectic menu served by curvaceous women wearing different versions of the Little Black Dress, all the while stealthily turning up the decibels and changing up the beat as the evening went on. Soon enough Beluga had locked down the grooviness factor, even though its reputation for all-night events—designer martini parties, Brazilian beat nights, the infamous all-white party—easily overshadowed its menu. It was, and still is, sometimes easy to forget that it’s a restaurant.
Beneath the hipper-than-thou atmosphere is an imperfect but generally well-done dining experience executed by Chef Paendin “Toon” Yongkanaysin—a good if underrated chef who, left to her own design, likely would (and should) renounce the six or so something-for-everyone dishes lurking on the menu. Included in the pedestrian pack are both the rack of lamb on garlic potato puree and braised root vegetables, and the 10-ounce strip steak with fingerling potatoes and baby carrots. Adequate comfort food, sure, but the dishes (more uninspired than disagreeable) seem as misplaced here as NASCAR hats do on Beluga’s clientele. Though ordered medium rare each time over several visits, both the lamb and the beef appeared to be imperiously and briefly jogged through a heated room (ditto for the duck breast, served at near sushi grade temperature).
What chef Yongkanaysin does do well is sea bass right out of the Nobu playbook, braised in Saikyo miso (the sweet yellow miso that’s more rice than soybean) and served with asparagus and onigiri (rice balls) in kombu-bonito broth (from kelp and fish). Simple, yet hitting every part of the palate: buttery fat, sweet, salt, and astringent. Also exemplary is the seared Togarashi tuna paired with a sliced avocado, asparagus, and cucumber roll, crunchy seaweed tempura, and a drizzle of tomato wasabi sauce. Among appetizers, the perfect crunch of delicately battered shrimp tempura with ponzu shoyu easily outshines the round of goat cheese swimming in tomato puree and its focaccia consort; fresh oysters with a side of Thai chili lime triumph over the gloppy lobster bisque; and sliders with fried quail eggs and pommes frites are better left for the gastro pubs. Instead, looking every bit like a row of large golden-fried Hershey kisses, pork-stuffed “lady purses” on dollar-sized puddles of red pepper puree are the sort of buttery, flaky packages that distinguish an Asian-fusion menu.
As good as Yongkanaysin is with these specialties, rarely do you see such deft hands in an Asian restaurant with dessert. When I queried dinner guests about Beluga’s most memorable dishes, every single person mentioned dessert first. Undying love was proclaimed for Yongkanaysin’s intensely flavored house-made black sesame and coffee ice creams; praises sung for the small cylinders of cocoa chiffon cake layered with an ethereal chocolate mousse ignited by cinnamon and cayenne. But it was the creamy-dreamy black “forbidden” rice pudding and the wafer-thin slices of mango fanned out like playing cards alongside a warm globe of sticky coconut rice that momentarily silenced us…twice.
Fans of sushi generally love it for its neat one or two bites, and its contrasting flavor and textures: cool, smoky, chewy, slippery, sweet, acidic, briny. And though it’s not too filling, it can be ridiculously expensive. Beluga’s sushi menu features the usual suspects of nigiri and sashimi, with a full selection of lean and fatty tunas, clam and shellfish, roe and caviar, and fresh oysters in season. You won’t find the likes of blowfish or snapper heads here, so if you’re an adventurous sushi savant, you might want to hang with the visiting Toyota executives on sushi highway in northern Kentucky. But if you’re of the Hirame and Unagi School of Sushi Ordering, and like rolls both creative and classic and occasionally served on a wooden toy boat, then you’ll find plenty to check off on the traditional order sheet.
Beluga’s sushi is slightly more expensive than most around town, a deterrent during lean times. (For comparison, I checked the classic spicy tuna roll at six other popular sushi spots. Beluga’s topped the list at $7.50; the next most expensive was $6.) Beluga counters this by featuring half-price sushi on Wednesdays until 12:30 a.m., and Fridays and Saturdays from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Reservations are recommended, as it’s wildly popular. With rolls regularly priced up to $20, it’s a good deal. One caveat: Beluga adds on an automatic 20 percent gratuity based on the half-price of sushi, for any size party. Though it’s printed in small type at the bottom of the half-price menu, you’re not likely to see it in the dim light (we used a cell phone as a beacon to pencil in our sushi order), and the servers aren’t likely to tell you when they hand you the bill. Ours didn’t, and we ended up unknowingly tipping her an additional 18 percent. It doesn’t seem to be an anomaly; we’ve heard similar complaints from other diners since. That’s a skeevy practice that could tarnish an otherwise good service reputation. The staff should make it clear, verbally, that tip is included.
For being a little long in the tooth, Beluga still manages to be comfortably modern, though its dual personality can sometimes be difficult to navigate. And maybe in the long run that doesn’t matter so much, because you just know there’s always going to be that one person who will want chips and guacamole amid platters of pristine sushi. Of course, Beluga can make that happen because, yes, they’ve got that too.
Beluga Restaurant, 3520 Edwards Rd., Hyde Park, (513) 533-4444
Bar Mon & Tues 5–10:30 pm, Wed–Sat 5–2:30 am. Dinner Mon & Tues 5–10:30, Wed & Thurs 5–12:30 am, Fri & Sat 5–2:30
Club beat playground fueled by strong cocktails and raw fish fronting a decent Asian fusion restaurant led by a talented Thai chef.
Small plates $6–$13, large plates $18–$32