Top-Notch Technique at Ando Japanese

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Omakase bento box

Photographs by Anna Jones/OMS

Upon entering Ando, the eye is immediately drawn to a glass case containing an elaborate, three-tiered miniature pagoda. Close inspection reveals tiny sloping rooftops fashioned from go-en coins—five-yen pieces with holes in the center—popular Japanese symbols of connectedness and relationship. The model is a standing regular’s gift to the proprietors, displayed alongside a framed scroll of kanji, roughly translated “meant to be together.”

For owners Ken and Keiko Ando, the tiny pagoda stands as a deeply personal testament to the welcoming, familial experience they aim to create for their customers, but also to the often circuitous route that led the Andos to their snug Blue Ash location. Ken’s peripatetic youth took him from a classical French culinary training in Japan in the early ’70s to the kitchens of luxury cruise ships, and since 1974, a swath of Japanese restaurants throughout the country. After meeting Keiko in Cincinnati in 1977, the two married and spent years in Minneapolis before returning to Cincinnati for good in 1996—opening Ando in Lebanon two years later, then moving to its present home in Blue Ash in 2004.

The restaurant continues to be a family affair. Keiko keeps a watchful eye on the dining room, calling out “Irrashaimase!”—Japanese for “welcome”—as she shepherds guests to tables, kindly pointing last-minute walk-ins to one of 10 seats along the lacquered wood sushi bar. The bar is an ideal vantage point for observing the stoic Ken, his now salt-and-pepper hair peeking out from beneath his chef’s hat. His hands are quick and graceful, not unlike a piano virtuoso, as he slices fish and crimps rolls, eventually stacking the tiny gems on wooden serving boards and colorful ceramic plates. The Andos’ daughter, Chiaki, spends afternoons capably mimicking her father’s movements—wielding the traditional, single-edged yanagi with admirable skill. But don’t underestimate the small scale and cozy familial vibe—Ando is all about serious, old-world Japanese cuisine, presided over by a master craftsman with more than 40 years of kitchen experience under his cloth belt.

Chef Ken Ando
Chef Ken Ando

Photographs by Anna Jones/OMS

Order a few appetizers and you’ll quickly discover Ken Ando’s devotion to traditional technique. Oshinko (Japanese pickles), the thick-cut daikon in particular, packs a shattering snap and has just enough saltiness to gently tease the palate. Tempura is an exhibit in grease-less, bubbly crackle—the panko-coated shrimp arriving still succulent. Adventurous diners should order the tanshio—thinly sliced beef tongue, lightly grilled and served with a lemon wedge, and a sauce of light soy and mirin.

But as much as I love a good pickle, it was the noodle dishes that really won me over. You’ll quickly recognize their different broths as kin: both udon and soba arrive in a broth of bonito flake and kombu, a type of Japanese kelp. But Ando chooses his soy sauces carefully–udon is gently seasoned with a lighter rice-soy, while his soba broth owes its meatier depth to a darker version. The ramen broth is even meatier, probably due to the pork belly that anchors the dish, along with pickled egg and plenty of bamboo shoots.

And the sashimi is not to be missed. Ken sources all his fish directly from vendors in Japan, along with a Taiwanese contact for freshwater eel. But much of the work happens before the fish even hits the sushi counter. Storage technique and temperature, handling, and cleaning are all tasks that occupy much of Ken’s day—but these are tasks that matter. On multiple visits the sashimi selection ranged from impeccably fresh bonito to yellowtail, sayori (halfbeak), toro (fatty tuna), and flounder.

When it comes to the rolls, small details deliver big impact. The rice, for instance, is cooked perfectly and never over-handled, achieving what Ando says is his top priority—a creaminess that allows the fish to take center stage. I’ve had wonderful, fresh, clean sushi in my life, but until Ando, I’ve never had flavors that punched so hard. The yellowtail picks up a hint of zing from a touch of minced scallion, the pickled plum packs a profound pucker, and my favorite, the sea urchin (uni), lets its bright, fishy sass assert itself just as you start to taste the mild rice. And for a convivial night out with a crowd, don’t miss the cook-your-own Sukiyaki experience. For $38 per person you oversee a nabemono-style dish, consisting of a simmering cast-iron pot of sweet and salty soy-based broth accompanied by an enormous rattan platter of thinly sliced Angus beef, sliced pink and white fish cake, tofu cubes, shiitake mushrooms, fresh spinach, onions, carrots, and Napa cabbage.

Strange as it may seem, the ideal finish at Ando is a bowl of decidedly Western indulgence. Try the brown sugar ice cream, made every day in the kitchen’s French Pot churner. With enough eggy richness to bankrupt a hen house, the flavor hovers somewhere between molasses and espresso. Or opt for the homemade, traditional mochi—a layer of rice cake envelops the quintessential strawberry ice cream of my central-Michigan youth. Icy yet sweet with nary an heirloom berry in sight, both the rice cake and the ice cream fit firmly in each respective orthodox tradition.

It’s one thing to be wowed by a rather exotic cuisine, but it’s quite another to feel you’ve been invited behind the curtain. The cautious formality of many Japanese restaurants can at times feel fussy, but here you place yourself in the capable hands of a family deeply committed to their craft. They welcome you across the threshold into their small, serene environment dedicated to traditional technique, mingled with genuine warmth. Two concepts that are surely “meant to be together.”

FYI
Ando Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar, 5889 Pfeiffer Rd., Blue Ash, (513) 791-8687, andojapaneserestaurant.com
Hours: Lunch and dinner Tues–Fri 11:30–2 & 5–9, dinner Sat 5–9:30, dinner Sun 5–9
Prices: $5.95 (Agedashi tofu) to $58 (Fish boat with tempura, sushi, and sashimi)
Credit Cards: All major
The Takeaway: Expertly prepared Japanese cuisine served by a modest staff adept at inspiring tranquil ease before the first chopstick snaps. But take note: the restaurant is BYOB.

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