The first thing that strikes you at Laku is that the decor isn't as austere as it is at many traditional Japanese restaurants. The dining room is downright cozy, in fact, with paper globe lanterns and contemporary art creating a warmly inviting mix of East and West. You'd hardly believe the place was formerly a fast-food burger joint.
The sushi chef, stationed behind what was the order counter and is now an attractively appointed sushi bar, greets you and your dining companion with a hearty "Irashai!" of welcome. You've decided to eat in the dining room tonight, so you resist those cushy red-upholstered chairs at the sushi bar.
A waiter escorts you with a smile to a table in the dining room, where you open the menu and find a few pleasant surprises among the usual teriyaki, tempura and udon suspects. You order the Laku scallops, which the menu describes as "broiled scallops served on the half shell with mushrooms, roe and our made-in-house spicy mayonnaise," and the avocado salad for starters. For your main course, you opt for beef sake and fried udon with shrimp. You brace yourself for an exciting gastronomic adventure.
Unfortunately, from that point on, the ride is mostly downhill. The scallops turn out to be bay scallops, slightly overcooked and served not on the half shell but with sliced shiitakes in a sweetish brown sauce on a cast iron sizzle platter that is not sizzling by the time it reaches your table. The avocado is a bit underripe, though the presentation is attractive and the ginger dressing less cloying than most.
Evidently, "fried" means "stir-fried" in the udon dish. The thick noodles are pleasantly chewy in a tasty, moderately spicy sauce (mild is also available), but they're not crunchy around the edge as the menu description leads you to expect. Beef sake, cubes of rib-eye stir-fried (medium-rare, as ordered) with scallions, garlic, black pepper and sake, comes closer to the mark. If the dish had been cooked long enough to burn off more of the alcohol from the sake, it might have scored a bull's-eye.
All in all, a pretty average experience. None of the lows were egregious, and none of the highs particularly thrilling -- like the roller coaster in the kids' section of an amusement park, you might say. Next time, you decide, you'll try a grown-up ride: the sushi bar.
A few days later, that's just where you find yourself. The sushi menu is modest, with just 13 sashimi options and a comparable number of nigiri, maki and house special rolls. You order a sampling from each category and a couple of salads. On a whim, you ask the sushi chef if he has hamachi kama, the broiled yellowtail cheek that's a sign of a sushi bar with at least a modicum of ambition. At first, he doesn't seem to know what you're talking about. Uh-oh, you think, not a good sign.
Your fear is unfounded, it turns out. In a few minutes he produces a more than respectable hamachi kama. Ika sansei, a salad featuring tender squid in a citrusy, chile-flecked dressing, hits the spot, too. But the "sliced crab" in the crab salad turns out to be the ubiquitous imitation crabmeat that's acceptable in a California roll, I suppose, but not in a salad where crab is billed as the star ingredient.
The sushi is, well, average. The fish is fresh enough, and served at the proper temperature. But if you're interested in anything beyond the dozen or so most popular fish and shellfish varieties, you'll have to look elsewhere. Knife work can be sloppy, too. Some of the pieces are nearly twice the size of others in the Laku Special Roll.
The wait staff is uniformly friendly but widely varied in experience, at times even confused. Like the sushi chef, who occasionally plies you with a complimentary piece of sashimi, they're eager to please but their performance doesn't always live up to that eagerness. In short, six months after opening, Laku is still a work in progress.