Restaurant review: Dishes find taste sensations at JMK Nippon

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By Beth Webb/Special to The Gazette
Thursday, March 9, 2017

ROCKFORD, ILLINOIS—You know that feeling that you've been asleep, but something shakes you awake and gets you excited about life's possibilities?

Well, after this gray and boring winter, I was pleased to find color and life in our dinner at JMK Nippon in Rockford, Illinois. This wonderful restaurant has been around for a long time, but it still feels current.

On the night we visited, the huge parking lot was packed. Fortunately, we had a reservation, so we only had to wait a minute or two.

The entrance will put you in a Zen mood if you do have a longer wait, though. There is a large koi pond with the sound of flowing water and some beautiful embroidered kimonos and pottery artifacts on display.

JMK Nippon actually is like two different restaurants, each with its own menu. The hibachi side features “grill at your table” entertainment while the cafe side features a sushi bar that lets patrons watch chefs prepare sushi.
We chose the cafe side. The menu is huge and fun, and the prices are a bit lower on that side.

As we were guided to our seats, I could see an incredible array of colors and textures at each table. With the variety of sushi, bento boxes and soups, we couldn't wait to start tasting the food. We even saw what looked like a hard taco at the next table, but our server informed us it was the Vegas roll. The diner eating it told us how good it was, and we soon found out for ourselves.

So, what to order? It was great to find a menu where we wanted it all. It was even hard to narrow down the appetizers.

A quick poll around the table resulted in way too many suggestions, so we'll have to go back and try the choices that didn't make our cut for that night—gyoza (pot stickers), edamame and tempura.

We settled instead on two. We started with shrimp shumai ($3.95). The soft, steamed dumplings came with a soy dipping sauce, and the combination of flavors was fantastic.

We also ordered Dragon Scales ($7.95) from the list of fusion appetizers. Spicy tuna wrapped in ohba leaves, tempura dipped and lightly fried—they were amazing. They came with a caramel-like teriyaki sauce that made me want to lick the plate.

The sauce was so tasty, in fact, that we tried dipping other things into it. These included the sushi Helene ordered and that we all shared. We'll blame the cafe's fusion vibe for encouraging our experimentation.

After looking over the entrees, I ended up with ginger pork ($13), which was thinly sliced with a flavorful sauce. It came with a light miso soup, a rather plain salad with a unique orange dressing and a beautiful box with fried rice—something thin and green with sesame seeds, shumai and fruit. Fun.

Nikki went with the Mas' Filet Special bento box ($18.50), which featured filet mignon in daikon and citrus soy sauce. As with mine, her dinner came with a bowl of miso soup, salad, artfully cut fruit pieces and more shumai.

She also got four pieces of California roll, fried whitefish and white rice. The presentation was impeccable, and every element was delicious. The filet was served in chunks, and each piece was cooked medium rare—exactly as ordered. The whole dish was wonderful. It definitely was a good choice.

Helene wasn't too hungry, so she ordered a garden roll ($5.50) and a California roll with masago ($4.50).

The garden roll was rolled in a bright, yellow soy wrap that was a feast for the eyes. Filled with white rice, red leaf lettuce, bell pepper, asparagus, cucumber and mayo, it was like a roll of salad without the dressing. It wasn't too surprising that it was a little bland. Had the mayo been flavored, it might have brightened up the inside as much as the outside.

The California roll (crab, avocado and cucumber) with masago carried an array of textures. The masago, which are smelt fish eggs, not only give the roll a colorful look but also add a crackling kind of texture.

Both rolls were delicious, but the favorite was the one we got for the whole table—the Vegas roll ($12.95). This included salmon, crab, cream cheese, avocado and cucumber all fried in tempura. A drizzle of the teriyaki sauce we had been lapping up from the Dragon Scale appetizer complemented the rest of the flavors.

If any of the desserts were made in-house, we would have felt obliged to try one or two. Fortunately, we had to opt out as we were too full.

The Four Dishes—Nikki Bolka, Helene Ramsdell, Jennifer Spangler and Beth Webb—review regional restaurants for The Gazette.

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