Hana Restaurant, Ulaanbaatar: a Trip to Japan Without the Passport

Sushi?… In Mongolia?! Heck yeah! Slightly crunchy in the best possible way, herring roe paired with mackerel is a sumptuous favorite at the Hana Japanese restaurant in Ulaanbaatar.

Jack’s birthday. What to get a man with a serious fish addition in a country where canned Alaskan salmon is pretty much the only palatable fish to be found? We’d heard a couple of good reports from a relative newcomer to Ulaanbaatar’s rapidly growing restaurant scene. Hana was said to have the best sushi – in fact the best fish of any description – in town.

Crisp, light and slightly malty, when it comes to pairing a beverage with sushi, it’s tough to beat a traditional Japanese rice lager such as these frosty glasses of Sapporo. Hana also features a decent wine list as well as locally-brewed beers.

On a whim, we’d stopped in for lunch at Hana the previous day during a walk of the city. I thought we were just getting in out of the mid-day heat for a bite to eat. I know now that Jack was vetting the place for a possible birthday meal. We each ordered a set menu. My chirashi-zushi, an assortment of beautifully-sliced salmon, tuna, sea bass, prawn and mackerel on top of a bowl of sushi rice surprised with its fresh and delicate flavors. Jack went with a nigiri-zushi set (which should have tipped me off that he was up to something). Like my bowl of chirashi-zushi, Jack’s meal was beautifully presented and fresh. Our bowls of miso soup, too, were spot on. We’d tried the sushi at a couple of other Ulaanbaatar restaurants, and had found it to be OK. But our lunch experience at Hana was authentically good.

As bright and fresh as maguro in Japan, this tuna flank was amazing. 

Anytime we visit a good restaurant, we start by asking available waitstaff, chefs, managers and owners what they recommend. On the night we visited Hana, the consensus was that the tuna, recently flown in from Hana’s Japanese supplier, was superb. We began our meal with a plate of maguro sashimi and were not disappointed. The translucent-ruby slices were served with a traditional salad of shiso leaf and julienne daikon, radish and squash. It was absolutely delicious.

Perfectly ripe, creamy avocado, crisp garden salad, seared tuna flank and a house-made sesame dressing came together beautifully. In the background, our chef is shaping the nigiri-zushi that would follow. 

The next item that was recommended to us was an appetizer salad featuring a balance of impeccably ripe, thinly sliced avocado and lightly seared tuna. Searing the tuna gave it a sweetness which was deliciously complimented by a quick dip in soy sauce. The chef’s sesame sauce gave the avocado and garden salad a savory-sweet dimension. In California, restaurant goers take avocado as good as this for granted. Here in UB, this kind of quality is evidence of the effort and attention to detail that separates Hana from other establishments.

A delicious, authentic assortment of steamed vegetables, pickled seaweed and other appetizers appeared next. 

Among the appetizers, our favorite was this konbu tsukudani. This savory bite is made of kelp cut thin, cooked in soy sauce and mirin, and served with sesame seeds. Jack felt like he was back in Japan. 

With enough food for two or three people, the sushi assortment platter is a good place to start if you’re visiting Hana. 

When it came to choosing our main entrée, we opted for the assorted nigiri-zushi for two.

The plate featured the obligatory cooked shrimp, tamago (egg), and a sushi roll that didn’t excite us. The tamago was quite good – but not something we typically would order á la carte. The remainder of our plate took us to Japan.

Although the hamachi lacked the butteriness we expect, it was impeccably fresh and beautifully presented with wasabi-cured flying fish roe. 

The sea bass, sliced translucently thin (you can see the wasabi beneath it) and dressed with a dollop of flying fish roe, was excellent. Given that the fish is fresh, what really makes and breaks sushi is the quality of the rice. Delicately flavored sea bass is unforgiving. At Hana, the sushi rice is excellent. Former Alaskans, we appreciate the difference between good, really good and excellent salmon. Fresh and melt-in-your-mouth buttery soft, the salmon sushi at Hana is perhaps the best fish available in Ulaanbaatar. 

We were on the verge of leaving when the chef brought out a treat appreciated by true aficionados of Japanese cuisine and by few others. Natto. Sticky, gooey, fermented soy beans. In most restaurants, natto is served on rice, perhaps accompanied by a raw quail egg. On Jack’s birthday, the chef served it on a bed of tuna sashimi. I let him have the bowl to himself. The perfect end to the perfect birthday dinner. 

Ulaanbaatar is not a foodie mecca. But restaurants like Hana are working to change that.

A Ghost Town, Grizzlies, and the Best Fish and Chips Anywhere

Patrolling Hyder, Alaska’s Fish Creek like she owns it, 600-pound Monica fattens up on a freshly subdued chum salmon.

With a population of fewer than 100 residents, Hyder, Alaska, bills itself as “The Friendliest Ghost Town in Alaska.” The town is one of those gems that is far enough off the beaten path to still be something of a secret, known mainly to the relatively few people who travel the Cassiar Highway in western British Columbia. Many of these travelers are on their way to or from Alaska, and not even all of these travelers are aware of what Hyder offers.

A prize for any grizzly, this beautifully marked chum salmon makes its way up the air-clear water of Fish Creek. 

In addition to rare opportunities to watch and photograph grizzlies up close from a safe vantage point (an elevated viewing deck runs along a short portion of Fish Creek), Hyder boasts what is surely one of the world’s most unusual destination restaurants. We’ve written about the Seafood Express in a previous post. Established in 1998, the school bus Jim and Diana Simpson converted into a restaurant continues to turn out the very best fish and chips we’ve ever had. Even when the salmon and bears aren’t in, the restaurant alone makes taking the turnoff to Hyder worthwhile. Jim, a fisherman by trade, supplies the fresh salmon, halibut, shrimp and prawns Diana magically transforms into perfectly crispy, golden-brown, airily light creations that seem to disappear in one’s mouth. Complimented by a bottle of Alaskan Amber Ale, lingering over a meal there is the perfect way to relax after a morning of nature watching while Rufous Hummingbirds trill musically from the nearby spruce and fir forest.

A female common merganser (Mergus merganser) leads her brood of chicks (next photo) down Fish Creek’s crystalline currents.

Merganser chicks scurry to keep up with their mother. This type of duck typically nests in tree cavities near water. They feed on small fish, insects and (I’m guessing) salmon eggs when they can find them.

Since 1998, the Seafood Express has been serving up gourmet-quality fish and chips

The viewing platform on Fish Creek provides one of the very few places in North America where people can routinely and safely view wild grizzlies from a fairly close distance. The platform is manned by knowledgable U. S. Forest Service Rangers. The best viewing is from late July through September.

A trip to Alaska through British Columbia by car, camper or motorhome is a trip of a lifetime. If your route takes you along the Cassiar Highway, Hyder should be a “must visit” destination!

For more, click here to see our iReport on CNN.