A Bit Player
Sake Lounge opened in 1997 in the clunkishly titled Bayou Place and immediately became a hip oasis in a downtown scene just beginning to shed its desert-isle image. Sake's elegant industrial atmosphere, New Age cross-cultural Japanese menu and innovative signature drinks attracted a loyal following, not to mention a slew of positive reviews and a nod from Esquire magazine naming it as one of the best new restaurants of the year.
More than two years later, however, Sake is merely a poor player on the ultrahip stage of downtown, a place still full of sound and fury but signifying little against such trendy competitors as the Mia Bella and Tasca. But I've always had a fondness for the restaurant and have defended it against naysayers who said it had slipped. So when I learned that Reggie Ferguson had taken over the kitchen and made changes to the menu, I decided it was time to pay another visit.
With Kenneth Leong still in charge of the high-quality sushi and sashimi, I decided to concentrate on the cooked food. I began with an assortment of appetizers, which had in the past always been one of Sake Lounge's strong suits. The gyoza ($4.50) were wonderful -- the dumplings squirted juice the moment I bit through their delicate, paper-thin skins. They're so good, in fact, that the accompanying dipping sauce was almost superfluous.
Of all the new appetizers I sampled, the Thai Tacos ($6.95) were the most successful; a sprightly mixture of finely minced chicken breast, peanuts, onions and ginger is tossed with a spicy Thai sauce and served on cool, crisp iceberg lettuce leaves, ready to be rolled up taco-style. Perhaps because of the luck of the draw, the first taco on the plate was nearly saturated with fish sauce, but the remaining ones were a delicious balance of sweet, hot and salty, making for a most appetizing appetizer.
I also enjoyed, more or less, the shiitake goat cheese wontons ($4.75). The crispy fried wonton sat in a puddle of cream-colored tomato-ginger sauce. It looked so creamy, in fact, that until I tasted it, I couldn't believe that it contained tomato at all. It is a lovely sauce, though, with an exceedingly light tomato flavor, merely a hint, really, but it does nothing for the wontons' robust cheese-and-mushroom filling. A good dish, but not particularly memorable.
Having an inordinate fondness for duck confit, I really wish I had enjoyed the duck confit harumaki ($6.99) more than I did. It arrives looking like a gigantic egg roll, sliced on the diagonal. Unfortunately, it's too big to eat successfully with chopsticks (or with fingers), and if you eat it with fork and knife, the crispy skin shatters. Either way, count on making a mess. The confit itself was a little dry and stringy and lukewarm inside the piping hot skin; the mango dipping sauce didn't help matters much. A lackluster dish, at best.
Among the entrées, the spicy tobiko shrimp ($14.50) was good. The large shrimp are dipped in tempura batter and fried to a crisp, then dabbed with tobiko sauce, a spicy mayonnaise enriched with fish eggs, and broiled. The sauce gives the normally mild shrimp a nice jolt, although the broiling does tend to mar the texture of the dish.
If only the Chilean sea bass ($14.95) had had even a hint of a jolt. The square fillet is breaded with Japanese panko bread crumbs and fried; I'll be the first to admit it's done well, but c'mon, the whole thing is hardly more than a Filet-o-Fish with an education. And as for the basmati rice with carrots and green beans that the fish rests on, the less said the better. But I do have a feeling it got its education at the same school as the fish.
Undaunted by my dinnertime disappointments, I returned for lunch a few days later, but once again the food was a mixed bag. The Ika salad ($7.99) is a strange brew, pieces of slightly chewy boiled squid on a bed of greens tossed with a red chili-lime dressing. The mixture of bitter greens and spicy citric dressing is overwhelming after the first bite (I can't imagine eating a whole plate of the stuff), while the underseasoned squid sits unhappily on top of the greens, not mixing in and not offering anything on its own.
If not for the jalapeño aioli, which was absolutely delicious, I would have thrown the grilled ahi tuna sandwich ($7.99) back into the sea. Unfortunately, not even the aioli could redeem the completely overcooked, dry, Chicken of the Sea-like fillet. Even the sesame seeds around the side of the fillet were burned and bitter. Thank goodness for the accompanying onion rings, which were delicious. Without them, I would have starved.
Just when I'd given up all hope, I tried the nabeyaki udon ($10, also available at dinner). A large iron tureen is brought to the table, filled with a rich fish broth, thick, slippery udon noodles, thin slices of beef and chicken, a fish cake and an egg poached in the hot broth. On the side is a shaker of Japanese red pepper, sansho, which you can sprinkle into the soup to your heart's content. Japanese comfort food par excellence. (I do have one quibble about this dish: Swimming in the broth is one piece of shrimp tempura. What exactly is the point of frying something to crispy perfection only to render it soggy in the soup?)
One more thing: Virtually every appetizer and entrée is served with (or garnished with) a little salad drenched with a creamy sesame dressing. It's good, but enough is enough. A restaurant is not required by law to use the same garnish for everything that comes out of its kitchen.
The question is, will I go back to Sake Lounge? Yeah, sure, but I have to admit, it's more a matter of convenience than cuisine (although with careful ordering you can still put together a pretty decent meal). No longer a destination restaurant, Sake, exquisitely situated in the heart of the Theater District, now must rely on an old maxim for its success: location, location, location.
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