The two-month old Saki restaurant in the Northland does for Asian cuisine what Costco does for retail: It offers an extensive inventory at modest prices. No free samples, though.
The restaurant's full name is Saki Asian Sushi Hibachi, a mouthful as unwieldy as the melting-pot menu. No one is going to call the place the definitive venue for the cuisines of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam or Thailand, but Saki does serve up those nations' dinnertime greatest hits — with, of course, the expected Americanized choices (crab wontons, sweet-and-sour chicken).
A United Nations approach to casual dining isn't a new trend; the Cheesecake Factory and Noodles and Co. — to name just two — have long offered dishes from so many different ports of call that the menus are practically as obnoxious as another reprise of "It's a Small World." And yet, it is a small world at Saki, which is located, without irony, next to an outpost of the International House of Pancakes. If these two restaurants combined their marketing budgets, they could advertise this culinary cul-de-sac on 64th Street as an EPCOT for economy-minded epicures.
There are good things on Saki's menu, including a very fine blue crab roll, described on the extensive sushi list as containing "real blue crab meat." Translation: All the other crab dishes on this menu are made with the fake stuff. That includes the plump purses of fried wontons stuffed with cream cheese and nearly microscopic shreds of artificial crab, and a New Orleans roll that blends real crawfish with ersatz crab.
Not that it helps to get crabby about this; I don't think I've ever tasted a crab Rangoon made with real crab, unless it got in there by accident. Another traditional crustacean creation, banh tom — the Vietnamese delicacy of fried battered shrimp and sweet-potato sticks — is modified at Saki so that there's no shrimp, just the sweet potatoes. It's tasty enough (and, as you'd hope, cheaper than the banh tom at Vietnamese restaurants), but I don't understand the point of dumbing down this classic starter. Shrimp and grilled beef turn up in the Vietnamese spring rolls and, unexpectedly, shrimp and chicken both appear in this venue's hot-and-sour soup, which is frequently a pork-only affair in most local Asian restaurants.
Saki serves hibachi-grill dishes, too, but they're prepared in the kitchen rather than with a communal teppanyaki grill. (You'll have to go to an actual Japanese steakhouse for that kind of dinner theater. You go on ahead; I'll see you never.) Those entrées, sold at roughly the same price point as they would be at a hibachi-only joint, include a house salad and a cup of that watery broth passing itself off as onion soup. If you must indulge in this corner of Saki's Asian marketplace, it's worth requesting a substitution of miso soup instead, which here comes loaded with seaweed and tofu cubes
That familiar hibachi-style salad — chopped iceberg lettuce and ginger dressing — can be ordered without committing to one of the grilled meat dishes, but you're far better off ordering the blend of sliced cucumber and fresh orange segments that come in a vinegary chili sauce. Oddly, it might be the best cucumber salad in town.
Chinese choices (orange peel, General Tso's, honey sesame) are heavy on sticky, sweet sauces, but for couples or groups sharing entrées, these provide a respectable counterpoint to the punchier curry offerings here. I liked the excellent Panang curry I sampled, which came in a spicy coconut-milk sauce (once I'd asked to have it spicy; the default heat level is in the insipid range, and you really have to insist).
The marinated Korean BBQ short ribs might have been delicious if the beef hadn't been sliced to the thickness of a greeting card (though even then it was a little on the chewy side). The bits of beef ("grilled fillet mignon," swears the menu) tucked into the Cowboy sushi roll — along with cucumber, cream cheese and avocado — were far more tender.
The overcooked beef slices in my fragrant bowl of pho were rubbery, too, and the little meatballs were more decorative than satisfying. Still, it was a big, comforting serving of a Vietnamese favorite, served with all the right condiments: sprigs of fresh basil, bean sprouts, wedges of lime, slices of jalapeño.
The Bangkok fried rice is first-rate if, again, you ask that the kitchen prepare it very spicy. (Otherwise it's merely a jumble of fried rice with tomatoes.) Saki's version of pad Thai isn't going to take any thunder away from the better-known Thai restaurants in the city, but it has a distinct charm, and the vegetable-and-tofu option is delicious.
The service at Saki is cheerful and attentive, and there's a full bar for diners who require a chilled glass of sauvignon blanc with their massaman curry.
Fortune cookies are brought out with the bill, but there are a couple of actual desserts. One of the servers insisted that I try her new favorite, a thick, soft chocolate brownie topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It's as all-American as Saki's fried chicken wings (which are served with ranch dressing), but this is a multicultural restaurant, and American culture counts. That goes for the rest of North America, too. On that night, the other dessert on the menu was fried ice cream — a holdover, perhaps, from this venue's previous tenant, Mazatlan Mexican Restaurant.
At least in the Northland, it really is a small world after all.