Japanese cuisine is almost by definition a matter of subtlety and delicacy. It is also matter of an intense, if not completely obsessive, pursuit of the perfect balance of flavors. One gets the sense Japanese cooks are intently focused not so much on building flavors, but on stripping them down to their most basic root level. This is why restaurants in Japan generally specialize in one very specific cuisine niche. If you want sushi, you go to a sushi restaurant. If you want katsu (panko-breaded and fried cutlets of meat served on a bed of rice), you go to a katsu joint. The same goes for hibachi (although, in Japan, you don’t get a wisecracking guy flinging shrimp at you — patrons cook their chosen meats on a small grill themselves), yakiniku, yakitori, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki, yakisoba, udon, ramen and so on. A restaurant bent on serving you the absolute perfect fried pork cutlet simply has no time to worry about skewered-chicken-heart yakitori or dealing with the intricacies of udon broth, much less trying to sort out the perfect balance of rice to seasoned rice vinegar for sushi.
Dining in Japan is a lot like looking at Mark Rothko paintings, where you have two or three blocks of colors on a canvas. You appreciate the paintings for the way the colors harmonize and just slightly contrast with each other as the work achieves a comforting sense of balance.
Needless to say, this is very different than western dining practices, which are more like watching Matrix at the local IMAX theater at ear-splitting volume levels. In 3-D.
All that business about subtlety and balance and root flavors? Let’s just say Soya didn’t get the memo. Soya is less a Japanese restaurant than a Japanese-inspired restaurant hot-wired for America’s if-a-little-is-good-then-a-lot-is-#%@!$!!-awesome-DUDE! approach to the world.
Soya also dispenses with the whole notion of niche Japanese cuisine. Of course, it isn’t the only restaurant in the U.S. in offering a veritable sampler platter of all things Japanese, but Soya takes the additional and unusual step of ratcheting up the intensity of all the flavors, presumably for the benefit of “indelicate” Western palates. The result is a hyper-caffeinated version of Japanese food. Rather than having flavors that embrace you and whisper in your ear, Soya peppers you with a few left jabs, then rears back and hits you with a solid right hook upside your head.
If traditional Japanese cuisine is a ballet dancer in your dreams, Soya is Speed Racer leaving a patch of smoldering rubber across your tongue.
Exhibit #1: Edamame. This is typically a bowl of (very) lightly salted steamed soybeans served as an appetizer – a delicate Asian take on mixed nuts. I’m a big fan of salt, so I’m usually sucking on the soybean hulls to liven up the edamame. No need at Soya, because the kitchen apparently likes to grab fistfuls of salt and dump them snow-like on their bowls of soybeans.
Exhibit #2: Miso soup. Miso is fermented soybean paste. It’s dense, rich and very salty. Ordinarily, miso soup is a little miso, a lot of water, a few small cubes of tofu, a few seaweed leaves and maybe three or four ribbons of green onions. By the time miso soup reaches the table, the miso has started to settle, and you have to stir the soup a little to re-mix it. At Soya, well, no need to worry about stirring anything because the miso soup consistently shows up so completely saturated with miso paste that the paste practically coats your teeth. The soup has an almost grainy texture to it, with the tofu and seaweed add-ins being nothing more than submerged afterthoughts in the murky abyss.
Exhibit #3: Godzilla roll. Here, Soya pretty plainly says to its diners: “All that business about the subtle flavor of the fish? Screw that.” It’s (warm) mushy spicy salmon wrapped in nori, topped with deep-fried (?) eel and doused in a dense cloyingly sweet and salty brown sauce. And if that wasn’t enough, the kitchen sprinkles salt on top of it. Not that it tastes bad, mind you, but it’s like getting a double-bacon-blue-cheeseburger when you thought you were ordering a small mixed-greens salad. I think there was some rice somewhere in the roll, but it was hard to tell.
Don’t get me wrong – Soya isn’t masquerading as an authentic Japanese restaurant. I mean, the guy who is usually manning the wok end of the operation is a surly stocky fellow typically sporting a sparkling oversized ball cap cocked to one side. On one busy night, he refused to prepare an appetizer I ordered because it was either too late or the restaurant was too busy (the waitress couldn’t explain, and I didn’t feel up to pressing the issue). It only makes sense that the music generally being piped through the place is classic rock (although it was jazz on one visit). Because what says “sushi” like “Fleetwood Mac”?
So what does Soya get points for? First, they get points for catering to western palates. All that subtle-flavor stuff is great, if you’re into that sort of thing. I, however, like things a little more aggressive. See – I’ve always preferred ramen to udon because a bowl of miso ramen is to udon what jet fuel is to regular unleaded. Udon broth is really brown water decorated with one or two thin slices of a bland fish cake and possibly an errant carrot slice or piece of a mushroom. Yes, I understand there are all these subtle and vague undertones, but we’re talking soup here. Who in their right mind orders a bowl of soup because they want to hunt around their tastebuds for the notion of flavor? Not this diner. So, when Soya’s udon broth shows up deep, dark and rich, I’m already happy. They throw in handfuls of vegetables and deep fried panko, making the dish all the thicker and tastier. Traditional? Not at all.
But who cares? It tastes great. In fact, it tastes far, far better than any udon I ever had in Japan.
Soya also gets points for … well, Soya also gets points for nothing else.
Like virtually every restaurant in Hampton Roads, Soya is in a strip mall which pretty much means you have to really work to coax any character out of the place. The interior is decorated nicely enough except that – in their zeal to maximize the earning potential – the proprietors even stuck a table in the far southwest corner, where diners sit amidst piles of high chairs, vegetable oil tubs, wine bottles, and the like. It’s like sitting in their store room, except less interesting.
The sushi is dull. Since I’ve determined Virginia is not exactly ground zero for sushi in the U.S., I do cut Soya some slack, but their rice is consistently packed so tightly that it could double as construction material. The fish is of mediocre quality and smallish size, while the avocado quality is all over the place – sometimes brown, sometimes hard (I don’t blame Soya for the ingredients, as they’re at the mercy of their suppliers. What I do blame Soya for is plating substandard fare). Tuna is grainy and bland supermarket quality. This, of course, is due to overfishing and not because Soya sought out cheap fish … but it was on my plate, and I was not happy. Slices of fish on the nigiri sushi are what I’d call average in size, but generally lacking in the bright freshness that makes sushi something interesting to eat in the first place.
The sushi rolls are, for the most part, pretty routine. If you’re going to run a sushi restaurant, you can either go full authentic (nothing more exotic than tuna and cucumber rolls) or you can go full throttle in the opposite direction (a la the corndog roll I had in Sacramento). Anything in between is just copping out. Soya’s sushi menu sports 31 rolls, including six versions of the California roll (one has baked scallops, one has baked crab, one has eel and more avocado, and so on). It includes the standard tuna rolls, crab rolls and cucumber rolls, along with oddities such as the Vegas roll (eel with cream cheese and avocado) and the dragon roll (tempura shrimp and cream cheese). The phoenix roll, of which three versions are offered, is described as “crab meat with cream sauce and avocado” – a crab salad wrapped in rice and seaweed.
The remainder of the menu doesn’t elicit many “wows,” either. For example, I ordered their “five specialties” one day – it’s billed as a chef’s choice sampler. Now, maybe I approached this with the wrong mindset, but I sort of expected some selections that highlighted the restaurant’s best or more exotic dishes. You know, give the kitchen the opportunity to strut its stuff. What I got, however, was a bento box with four things in it, so I’m not sure where the “five specialties” moniker comes from (they did give me miso soup and a salad, but that would be six things unless one of those isn’t special enough … who knows). The four items consisted of steamed pork dumplings, a California roll, chicken teriyaki and shrimp tempura served with mayonnaise. The California roll was, well, a California roll. If a sushi joint is going to brand a California roll as a specialty, it had better be a really good California roll. Soya’s, however, is the same California roll found in grocery store coolers everywhere – cucumber, avocado and fake crab. The appearance of chicken teriyaki on the specialty plate was equally puzzling. It was the standard sweet Americanized dish, right down to the overcooked chicken (I’ve had their teriyaki shrimp, and it’s much better). The shrimp tempura was fine, but mayo makes for a strange and rather lousy dipping sauce. The dumplings were the brightest spot of the meal – thin sheets of dough wrapped around savory bites of herbed pork.
Now, I’m not trying to say Soya’s food is not good. Far from it Their tempura is tasty enough, as is the sushi and the aforementioned udon, and the “grill” dishes end up with a great smoky flavor (I use quotes because it seems like most of the dishes are cooked in large woks with giant flames shooting dramatically up at the ceiling every few minutes). What I’m saying is they could step up their game. I mean, the only thing I’ve ever seen on their special board is “Banana Tempura Fried Ice Cream.” How about sourcing some new, fresh fish? Or letting the sushi counter devise some new rolls?
If Soya could take the aggressiveness it takes towards flavors and apply that to its overall restaurant operation, I think the place could rival any other Japanese restaurant in Hampton Roads.
Address: 2113 Coliseum Drive, Hampton
Phone: (757) 896-8807
Note on hours: Closed for lunch on Saturday and all day Sunday