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Hiro Sushi tempts diners with udon, bento and other diverse dishes

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Vegetables in Hiro Sushi’s tempura udon include carrots, onions, broccoli, zucchini and Napa cabbage. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
Agedashi tofu is a popular preparation of tempura-fried soy protein with dashi broth. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
Hiro Sushi’s three-item combination bento can include, clockwise from left, California roll, steamed rice, teriyaki salmon and mixed tempura. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
Miso soup comes with the combination bento at Hiro Sushi in Medford. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
This Japanese soda is sealed with a marble that sinks into the bottle when opened. Photo by Sarah Lemon.
A side of deep-fried vegetables and a single shrimp come with the tempura udon at Hiro Sushi in Medford. Photo by Sarah Lemon.

While ramen has been a food darling of the past decade, it’s been easy to overlook udon.

Japan’s quintessential wheat noodle is thicker than ramen — more accurately of Chinese origin — and owing to its silky exterior, is even more slurpable. Done right, udon ranks high on my palate with other cold-weather comfort foods.

Medford’s Hiro Sushi recently served up udon among the most satisfying I’ve tried locally. And the Aviation Way restaurant’s bento offers commendable variety for its genre.

Although my partner and I opted for hot dishes in lieu of sushi, diners of the latter inclination will find an exhaustive menu of more than 80 variations on nigiri, regular maki, “hoso” (small) maki, hand rolls and “special rolls” from $5 to $20. And that doesn’t count assortments of sashimi, chef’s combos and party trays, topping out at $110 for eight special rolls.

Because there’s no lunch menu at Hiro, prices seem more in line with dinnertime. Udon ranges from $13 for vegetable to $17 for seafood or tempura. Craving deep-fried, crispy veggies along with noodles, I ordered the tempura.

Two bento items cost $16; the fee for three is $22, which includes miso soup, green salad and steamed rice. My partner selected three items, maximizing the bento’s value with salmon teriyaki, rather than chicken or beef. And because he doubted I would share enough tempura, he allotted one bento choice to his own fried veggies, along with the de rigueur California roll over the spicy tuna roll.

Bento aficionados have numerous ways to mix and match at Hiro. The Korean beef dish bolgogi is offered alongside beef ribs. Crunchy breaded katsu comes as chicken or pork. Agedashi tofu keeps company with another popular appetizer, gyoza. And four pieces of sashimi are a raw alternative to sushi rolls.

The prospect of tempura as our main course inspired me to order a soft-textured starter. Hiro is one of the few Japanese eateries in Southern Oregon that prepare takoyaki ($8), pan-fried balls of dough, studded with morsels of octopus, that are an Asian street-food delight.

Sadly, the server returned to apologize that the last takoyaki had just been served. I gazed longingly at a table across the room that had just received a squat pyramid of takoyaki and reluctantly changed my appetizer order to agedashi tofu ($7), similarly topped with bonito shavings.

First, we whet our appetites on the bento’s small bowl of miso soup. This was in truth a bowl of broth, lacking any additions or even garnish. I’m accustomed to a few cubes of silken tofu, some filaments of wakame seaweed and a few sliced scallions atop miso soup. Maybe this portion represented the bottom of the batch, or maybe Hiro eschews all but the essential component of this Japanese staple.

The bento’s side salad arrived in short order, a fresh, juicy mix of leaf lettuce, frisée, shredded carrot and cabbage that had much more character than I expected. The ultra sweet, creamy dressing, however, discouraged me from taking more than a couple of bites. Also very sweet, the Kimura Ramune soda aka “fun marble drink” that my partner ordered was an interesting diversion for its shape and mechanism for opening it.

Our runner-up appetizer delayed, the entrees came out first. My udon was blistering hot, served in a soup bowl that more closely resembled a plate in size. Lightly blanched carrots, onions, broccoli, zucchini, Napa cabbage and bits of dried shiitake mushroom and seaweed augmented the generous helping of noodles in their subtly seasoned broth.

Unlike ramen, authentically served in a rich pork stock, udon’s clear broth incorporates dashi, made from dried fish and fungi, along with soy sauce and the rice wine mirin. Udon broth doubles as a lovely, light dipping sauce for tempura-fried vegetables, easily overwhelmed by soy sauce.

Hiro’s tempura comprised the common broccoli floret, sweet potato and zucchini slices, onion ring and a single shrimp. The crustacean was a welcome inclusion, although I still longed for a mushroom, one of my favorite tempura items. But the assortment arrayed perfectly done veggies in impeccably bubbly batter of just the right thickness, with hardly a trace of residual grease.

Also nicely done, my partner’s teriyaki salmon retained the shape and integrity of a whole steak, instead of a thin fillet or small bits from a larger cut. It was a much heartier piece than I anticipated, judiciously glazed with slightly sweet teriyaki that didn’t overpower the fish. The six pieces of California roll stood in deliciously chilled contrast to the rest of the plate.

Finally, the agedashi tofu arrived, although we had little appetite left for it. And when I realized the kitchen had rushed its preparation, I almost wished I had declined an appetizer for want of the takoyaki.

The appetizer’s blocks of tofu looked puffed and lightly golden under their tempura. But the cool, creamy tofu’s impact was marred by a barely perceptible layer of gummy, underdone batter. The pile of shaved bonito and pool of savory dashi couldn’t quite salvage the dish.

There’s plenty more on the appetizer menu, though, to warrant return visits. Along with deep-fried oysters, calamari and soft-shell crab, there are grilled salmon and yellowtail collars, plus monkfish liver, which I’ve relished in bigger cities but never seen at a Japanese restaurant in Southern Oregon.

Open for more than five years, Hiro Sushi has proven its staying power and, with such an extensive menu, should tempt diners with diverse dishes for years to come. Located at 3613 Aviation Way, Hiro Sushi is open from 11:30 a.m. to

2:30 p.m. and from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; takeout only on Mondays. Order at hirosushi4u.com or call 541-772-0602.

Tempo Tidbits

Chateaubriand 36 is the latest restaurant to occupy a storied site on Ashland’s South Second Street, formerly Smithfields.

The French-inspired establishment has approximated its opening date as mid-November, according to its reservation site on OpenTable. The website chateaubriand36.com is soliciting employees with the promise of “big changes coming soon” at 36 S. Second St.

Chef Michael Bryant heads Chateaubriand 36, according to its OpenTable page. Bryant also is executive chef at Alchemy Restaurant and Bar, located across South Second Street from Chateaubriand 36 and operated by The Winchester Inn. Relocating from Los Angeles, Bryant has appeared on television cooking competitions and reality shows, including “Chopped,” “Knife Fight” and “Chef Wanted With Anne Burrell.”

Before recruiting Bryant, Winchester Inn owners Michael, Laurie and Drew Gibbs purchased Smithfields in late 2019 from founder Neil Clooney, who opened it in 2011. The steakhouse struggled during statewide closures in response to the coronavirus, closing for about four months last year before reopening in the spring with expanded outdoor seating.

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A Medford winery ups the ante on wood-fired pizza.

Dunbar Farms’ pizza dough incorporates flour from its own wheat, organically grown and milled on its century-old property. Partnering with a longtime pizza chef, Dunbar debuted a new dinner menu this fall to complement its sandwiches and salads, now available for lunch.

A rotating pizza special, entree, salad and dessert complement Dunbar’s regular cheese, pepperoni and Margherita pizzas, available from 4:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Recent specials included roasted pepper, marinated mushroom, spinach and pesto pizza, Caesar salad, Tuscan chicken soup and an entree of braised short ribs with greens, priced from $6 to $15. Lunch service starts at 11:30 a.m. Thursday through Sunday in the tasting room, 2881 Hillcrest Road.

Dunbar converted a horse trailer into its pizza oven, said manager Nick Stevenson, and collaborated with the founder of Ashland’s Creekside Pizza Bistro on its new menu. Hosting free live music Friday evenings, Dunbar recommends reservations. Call 541-203-0612.

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Weekend lunch service and celebrity photos update Ashland’s Osteria La Briccola.

The Italian restaurant at 18 Calle Guanajuato Way announced on social media its plan to open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Photos of celebrity customers recently were installed in the dining room.

Before relocating this year to Ashland and opening La Briccola in July, executive chef-owner Davide Ghizzoni was executive chef at Ca’ Del Sol near Universal Studios in Southern California’s Studio City. His wife and La Briccola co-owner, Sherri Ghizzoni, managed Ca’ Del Sol’s special events. See osterialabriccola.com.

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Have a Tempo tidbit to share? Email news about the local dining, food and beverage scene to: thewholedish@gmail.com

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Sarah Lemon has relished the Rogue Valley’s dining scene for nearly two decades as one of the original contributors to Tempo’s dining column. Her palate has helped to judge some of the region’s culinary competitions and festivals. The former editor of A la Carte, the Mail Tribune’s weekly food section, she writes a biweekly column, The Whole Dish, and blogs and podcasts under the same name. Listen at mailtribune.com/podcasts and read more at mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish. Follow @the.whole.dish on Instagram, @thewholedish on Twitter or see facebook.com/thewholedish.