When the owner of a restaurant suddenly closes it, remodels it and changes the approach, it’s usually a sign of trouble.
But in the case of Sake, the new sushi restaurant at 2140 W. 21st St. North, the changes are actually a good sign. The aging building that over the years has held tired buffet restaurants now serves sushi and noodle dishes so divine, my friend and I recently declared it our new place and sealed the deal by sharing a Margarita Lake for Two, one of the restaurant’s many whimsical bar offerings.
Owner Lin Jason took over the long-time Taiwan Restaurant two years ago and, citing too much Chinese buffet competition, decided to switch the concept. He closed the restaurant, gussied up the interior, then reopened it as Sake in early November.
I’d been hearing good things about the sushi from friends who live in the neighborhood and decided to check it out. It was around 6 p.m. on a Sunday, and the place was pretty deserted, but I was struck by how clean and simple it looked. The small dining room has a bar next to the seating area, and the two are separated with decorative bamboo stalks. Orange pendant lights over the tables give the dining room a warm glow. As the evening wore on, the restaurant quickly filled up with people in on the secret.
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A friendly waitress immediately came to take our drink order, and after perusing the fun cocktail list, we settled on the Margarita Lake for Two, bypassing sweeter cocktails with names like Chi Chi, Woo Woo and Pink Lady. Though not the traditional accompaniment for an Asian meal, it was too tempting to pass up. The drink was served in a giant fishbowl-sized goblet with lots of fresh lime, lemon and cherries floating in it, and a small corona beer tipped over inside it. The drink, which went down smooth, also came with with two extra-long straws so neither of us had to awkwardly lean in to drain it.
Primed for dinner, we started with a couple of appetizers, and first up was the mixed tempura. It was artfully arranged on a plate and included two pieces of tail-on shrimp joined together by an onion ring then piled on top of a fried broccoli floret, a sweet potato medallion and a large slice of zucchini. The fried coating was crispy without being greasy, and the panko crumbs in the breading gave each piece a nice, crisp texture.
We also wanted some edamame and opted for the spicy version. I keep hoping someone in Wichita will replicate the chili oil-coated edamame I’ve fallen in love with in sushi restaurants in Kansas City and other large cities. But this will do until then. The soybean pods were sprinkled liberally with a spicy salt that left a lovely burn on the lips.
I loved all the sushi I ordered, but the presentation was a show-stopper. Instead of sending out the rolls and sushi servings one by one, the Sake chef meticulously arranges the entire sushi order onto one large plate, and the result is a dramatic explosion of color and texture. Even more impressive: Our plate was garnished with a large shaving of peeled cucumber that had been rolled into a cone before the kitchen dropped a glowing plastic gem inside that changed colors every few seconds. The color glowed through the cucumber, illuminating its veins, and the changing color popped in the dim lighting. It was like a sushi disco.
The rolls have fun, geographically appropriate names like the Air Capital roll, the 21st roll (since the restaurant is on 21st Street) and the Twin Lakes roll (since the restaurant is near the Twin Lakes neighborhood). We tried the Twin Lakes roll, which was wrapped in a translucent green soy pepper and filled with shrimp tempura, spicy snow crab and cucumber, then topped with eel sauce and mango sauce. The fish tasted fresh, and fried shrimp in the middle added some heft and crunch to the roll. I also liked the sweetness that the mango sauce added.
The rainbow roll, my favorite sushi roll, also was a success. It was cut into much thicker pieces, each topped with a different kind of raw fish and with crab meat, avocado and cucumber. The pieces were garnished with generous amounts of orange roe, which wasn’t listed on the menu and isn’t my favorite. But my friend loves the crunchy little fish eggs and scraped them off for herself. Like the other rolls, the fish tasted fresh, and once I eliminated the crunchy roe, I was able to enjoy the stick-to-your-teeth chewiness of the ripe, creamy avocado paired with the various, colorful fishes.
My favorite was the coconut shrimp roll, which the waitress recommended. It was filled with shrimp tempura and snow crab and topped with avocado, eel sauce and coconut flakes. The coconut was detectable but not overwhelming and gave the roll an unusual tropical flavor. It also was the most attractive of the rolls, decorated by the chef to appear brown-and-green-striped on top. The plate of sushi was garnished with banana leaves and ornamental lettuce, and my photo of it is worthy of framing.
Sake also has an extensive nonsushi menu full of Japanese and Thai noodle dishes, curry dishes, teriyaki dinners and hibachi meals served with choice of meat, plus soup, salad, vegetables and fried rice. We also sampled the chicken pad Thai, which was nicely spicy, not too saucy and served with what might be the most tender chicken I’ve ever tasted.
Ratings reflect the critic’s judgment of the food, service and atmosphere in relation to the price. If you would like to nominate a restaurant to be reviewed, call 316-268-6327.
☆☆☆ and a half out of four
Where: 2140 W. 21st St. North; 316-425-7766
Type of food: Sushi, Thai
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 1-9:30 p.m. Sundays
Cost: Sushi rolls range from $3.50 for the most basic to $12.95 for the most complex. Orders of sushi and sashimi, which come with two pieces, are $2.50 to $8. Hibachi dinners are $9.95 to $20.95. Noodle dishes range from $$8.95 to $13.95. Lunch specials range from $7.95 to $12.95.
The restaurant has Bento box lunch specials, hibachi lunch specials and rolls that are two for $8.95 or three for $11.95. Kids’ meals, featuring hibachi, tempura and teriyaki options, also are available.
Alcohol: Full bar