Thursday, February 20, 2003

Determined find Lebanon Sushi bar

By Jill Hanning
Enquirer contributor

LEBANON - When Ken Ando got a call from a lost couple who had driven two hours from Columbus to have dinner at his Japanese restaurant, Ando, he said: "Stay put."

Briefly abandoning his station behind the sushi bar, Ando met the wayward diners at the Bob Evans parking lot they'd phoned from and led them back to their meal.

"We get calls all the time from people who are lost," said Keiko Ando, Ken's wife and Ando's hostess and waitress.

"In our location, there's not much else here. People come here just to eat and they get lost," Ken Ando added. "It's hard to explain where it is, so, I go pick them up."

Set back from the road, adjacent to a Big Bear grocery store plaza along U.S. 42, Ando is a bit of a culinary anomaly in these parts. The Japanese restaurant resides in the same city as the famed Golden Lamb Inn and the Village Ice Cream Parlor, but is establishing its own niche with what is unique fare in this growing county seat.

Ando boasts more than 20 hot and cold appetizers, which vary from the popular, such as gyoza, Japanese pan-fried dumplings, and edamame, lightly salted boiled soybean pods, to the more obscure, like yamakake, grated mountain yam with sliced tuna.

But, according to the Andos, the secret's in the sushi. "Sushi quality is most important," Ando said. Sushi offerings number almost 50 different types, including California rolls, spicy tuna, eel, yellow tail and 10 specialty rolls that range in cost from $5 to $14, all of which Ken prepares himself. He orders the fish twice a week from Chicago, where it is shipped from Japan.

"It's great sushi," said Christine Hadley, one of Ando's regular customers. She and her husband stop in for sushi about once a week. "This is just really fresh and good, and there's a friendly atmosphere."

Ando has been in business for four years, and the Andos say it's taken them this long to build a strong clientele and begin to make the restaurant a success.

"My wife and I both like Japanese food, and the quality of the food at Ando is very good for the price. No matter where else we go, we're always disappointed," said Tascal Gentile , a regular customer who has traveled to Japan and is originally from England. "We've developed a good relationship with Keiko and now we sometimes order things that aren't listed on the menu. Ken makes a special California roll that my 2-year-old son can eat."

Ando said that at first, 70 percent of his customers were Japanese, but now the restaurant sees more American customers than Japanese. "At first, customers would only order chicken teriyaki, beef teriyaki, but now 90 percent of customers order sushi," Ando said.

Ando, 52, moved to the United States in 1974 after studying French cuisine in Japan. Every now and then he adds desserts to the menu that display his range, such as creme brulee and chocolate parfait. He worked in a series of Japanese restaurants in New York, Akron and Pittsburgh before he met Keiko, 45, in Cincinnati in 1978. She was working as a server in a Samurai restaurant - now part of the Benihanachain - and he was the second chef. After living and working in Minneapolis for many years, the couple, who have three children, decided to open their own restaurant in Lebanon because of its location between Cincinnati and Dayton.

"There are a lot of Japanese companies around here. If they want to eat Japanese food they have to drive 40 minutes; this is closer," Ken Ando said. But, Keiko admits she had reservations about the location.

"People from Lebanon had never heard of or seen Japanese food," she said. "Some people eat first time sushi and like it, but most won't even try it. When we first opened, there were so many people who thought we served egg rolls and egg drop soup and just left."

But the Andos have found a home in quiet Lebanon. "I don't like a big city; every minute I have to run, so many people come and go," said Ando.

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