Ninja Sushi and Grill, tucked into a sizable shopping center a stone's throw from The Parks at Arlington, certainly doesn't inspire confidence from the outside. Sandwiched between Anna's Linens and Hobbytown USA, its storefront is plastered with ads touting a reasonably priced buffet and happy-hour specials. In short, it seems to be the portrait of a strip-mall eatery you'd race past en route to something a little better.
Yet, when you step through the door, your impressions will immediately -- and positively -- shift.
Combining the austere elegance of Japanese design and embracing McMansion chic (dark woods, white vinyl and slate-colored tile), the nicely appointed, well-lit restaurant looks nothing like its exterior suggests, and the sprawling menu is ambitious and stuffed with intriguing choices. It's not complex, merely lengthy, with the different focal points (sushi, hibachi, appetizers, etc.) broken out into individual sections.
Ninja Sushi and Grill opened in early September, moving into a space which used to house Hibachi Sushi. It's a funky concept: Part overstuffed buffet, part sushi bar, part hibachi restaurant. But don't be intimidated by all the choices; the helpful servers will guide you through them -- starting with the buffet that dominates the floor plan, wending its way from the chocolate fountain near the door (!) to the ample rows of fresh sushi spread out near the back of the restaurant. Whether it's squid salad, spicy ramen soup or steamed gyoza you're hungry for, the buffet ($9.99 at lunch, $12.99 at dinner and on weekends) provides a dizzying array of possibilities. There's miso soup, edamame and a California roll; over there, vegetable egg rolls, steamed rice and hibachi steak. My wife and I sampled several dishes, including the tempura-battered shrimp (impressively un-greasy), the spicy ramen soup (very satisfying with a pleasing punch of heat) and, of course, closed things out with some marshmallows and fruit run through that chocolate fountain.
The Ninja Sushi space and its dominant buffet are split into three distinct sections: sushi rolls, hot entrees and the salad/dessert bar (there are also six desserts on the menu). Try as many combinations as your stomach can handle. For nearby, cash-strapped University of Texas-Arlington students, maxing out on all this variety is a no-brainer.
The sushi itself, when ordered off the menu, ranges from passable (the spicy tuna roll, $4.95 for six to eight pieces) to shockingly good (the $12.95 "Ninja Volcano" roll, which includes crab, salmon, scallop and masago, and arrives on a pair of flaming seashells). Although the heavily sauced ninja volcano roll, initially obscured by the fire, appeared to be overkill, it was actually a wonderfully piquant sushi roll. It's not something a purist would immediately pick off the menu, but the variety of fish was fresh and generously used, and that neon orange sauce on top packs a hefty kick.
Again, Ninja Sushi errs on the side of excess with 19 traditional rolls ($4.75-$9.95); 13 raw special rolls ($6.95-$13.95) and 20 cooked special rolls ($4.95-$13.95). There are also 18 options for nigiri and sashimi, which top out at $9.99.
If wading through the menu proves too frustrating, Ninja Sushi has also created four "dinner entrees," ranging from $9.99 to $35.99, which incorporate several specially chosen sushi rolls, sashimi and nigiri. Ninja Sushi also offers several Japanese beers on tap.
Hopefully, Ninja Sushi and Grill can sustain itself -- it's certainly chosen a competitive area in which to do business. (Standing at the restaurant's front door alone, you can glimpse an Olive Garden, an El Fenix, a Ryan's and a T.G.I. Friday's.)
But, hey, if any eatery can subvert expectations and thrive, it's this one, which deceives (and, let's face it, slightly dismays) just before it delights.