Food & Drink

An East-West melange with a cherry on top

The maraschino cherry made me nervous. Not that I have anything against maraschino cherries, mind you. I'm even willing to concede that they might have culinary uses beyond their usual role in cocktails and ice cream sundaes. But never in my wildest flights of fancy would it have occurred to me to garnish a Japanese seaweed salad with a maraschino cherry. It obviously occurred to someone at Sake House, though, because that's precisely the way the dish is presented.

I suppose I should have seen it coming. If the restaurant's "Japanese Grille & Fusion Sushi" billing didn't tip me off, the exuberant hodgepodge of East-meets-West decor should have. In a dining room where strings of cut-glass crystals dripping from the ceilings vie for attention with red lanterns and a massive gold pictogram, can maraschino cherry garnishes be far behind?

As it happens, the seaweed salad was the first thing served to me at Sake House. I was seated at the rose-and-black granite sushi bar and had ordered a sampling of nigiri sushi and a couple of rolls. And, as I say, it made me nervous to think that the maraschino cherry was a harbinger of things to come.

Happily, my trepidations were for the most part unfounded. Except for the garnish, the seaweed salad was traditional, served on a bed of fine julienne cucumber. Nigiri sushi are competently rendered, too, though the selection is pretty standard. Their biggest break with tradition is that they're not served in pairs but in single pieces and priced accordingly -- a variation that single diners will find welcome.

In keeping with a growing sushi bar trend, rolls are a buy-one-get-one-free proposition, Sunday through Thursday. A diverse assortment of about 30 standard-size rolls is offered, more than half of them cooked or vegetarian. The spicy white tuna roll is surprisingly bland, but the eel and avocado roll is a satisfying melange of earthy and sweet flavors and creamy textures.

Where the sushi bar shines, though, is with its brief but varied selection of oversize house specialty rolls. The Durant roll, an inside-out assembly featuring grouper tempura, avocado and torch-seared tuna, is a subtly smoky delight. And the Out of Control roll lives up to its name with an explosion of colors and flavors in the form of crab, shrimp, egg, avocado, crispy salmon skin and tempura bits, topped with slashes of a spicy red chile sauce reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock painting.

Sake House offers a fairly typical selection of hot appetizers, as well as a modest sampling of noodle and rice dishes and other traditional Japanese fare. But don't let the "Grille" fool you into thinking you can expect a Japanese steakhouse experience. Teppanyaki and teriyaki dishes are cooked in the kitchen.

Unfortunately, the performance in that kitchen is uneven. Unagi don, the classic dish of grilled freshwater eel, glazed with eel sauce and served over rice, is competently rendered and attractively presented in a lacquered box. Tempura-battered soft shell crabs come close to the mark, too, though the batter is a bit heavy. And a recent order of shrimp soba produced a tasty enough dish, except for the glaring flaw that it was made with wheat noodles rather than the buckwheat noodles that are its defining ingredient.

Service is generally attentive and eager to please. The language barrier can pose a problem at times, but there's typically at least one manager or waiter on hand to help out with any translation needs.

The wine list is modest in length but offers a variety of styles, including an unusually good selection of by-the-glass options for a Japanese restaurant.

True to its name, Sake House also offers an exceptional sake selection. In addition to the house warm sake, seven chilled sakes are offered, from crisp Karatamba to milky, delicately sweet Ozeki Nigori, an unfiltered rice wine. Chilled sakes are served in attractive glass pitchers with a built-in ice pocket to keep them cold without diluting their delicate flavors. Thankfully, they're not garnished with a maraschino cherry.

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