Old Man River

Perhaps it's best to say that Saji-Ya has entered a period of rest after its long spate of medal-winning in the early '90s.

I think I would have had a better sushi experience if the servers were more connected to the kitchen; asked what was special or good that night they invariably replied, "Everything." For instance, ama ebi is a highly perishable treat that's not always stocked the way hardier fish like tuna is. The ama ebi I eventually got was initially reported unavailable and then arrived as a surprise in the middle of the meal. (I did make an effort to try different days of the week to see if that would change the sushi quality, and it didn't noticeably, although I did get the ama ebi on a Thursday.)

Sadly, I can see how claiming that Saji-Ya has imperfect sushi could be a self-fulfilling prophecy--once sushi fans start going elsewhere (though I think it's safe to say they're already elsewhere), Saji-Ya won't have the incentive or capital to buy premium fish, and the next thing you know there will be an Olive Garden at this prime Grand Avenue site and I'll have the curses of all St. Paul raining down on me. In the meantime, I'll think of Saji-Ya as a cozy neighborhood spot perfect for a drink and a dish of umegiso--and a river at rest.

TABLEHOPPING

CRABBY?: You have another two weeks for stone crabs--crabs from the Southeast with claws like heaven's hors d'oeuvres--at the Pickled Parrot (26 N. Fifth St., Minneapolis, 332-0673). The crabs are flown in fresh from world-renowned Joe's Stone Crab in Miami, and they're the best crustacean going. Best of all, you don't even have to feel too guilty about indulging yourself, for you'll simultaneously be eating your vegetables (like the following luscious creamed spinach) and helping kids--10 cents from each pound of stone crabs sold goes to Operation Smile, a charity providing medical care and reconstructive facial surgery to children around the world.

Joe's Stone Crab Creamed Spinach

* 2 10-ounce boxes frozen

chopped spinach, thawed

* 11/2 cups light cream

* 1 teaspoon salt

* 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

* 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

* 2 tablespoons flour

Gently squeeze the spinach, discarding excess water. Place in a nonaluminum saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for five minutes, until beginning to become tender, but still bright green. Add the cream, salt, and nutmeg and simmer for five minutes, until the cream has bubbled and reduced slightly. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small skillet; add the flour and cook over low heat, stirring, for three or four minutes, until opaque. Stir this roux into the spinach mixture. Simmer for four or five minutes longer, until creamy and smooth but still bright green. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve hot.

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