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.

Saji-Ya
695 Grand Ave., St. Paul; 292-0444.

It's wisdom that you never step in the same river twice; it's commonly accepted that no two siblings grow up in the same family; it's possible that you never even walk down the same street twice, with all the dramas taking place behind closed doors and the secret life of trees. So why is it so surprising to find a restaurant changed over time? It's not sad to see that a river in late summer is meandering and sluggish when in spring it was surging and powerful, so 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, that the slow, meandering sort of river that Saji-Ya is now is one of those seasonal phases, a sluggish late-winter stream waiting for the inevitable ice-melt surge.

Saji-Ya still has its relaxed, festive feel. A little red bridge arches over a fish pond, a cute animatronic critter pops in and out of a basket hanging from a kite. Servers call out a greeting as you cross the bridge, which feels very welcoming and propitious. The booths are a warm varnished pine, awkward to get into, but attractive enough that you don't mind. Drinks are well-thought-out and numerous, proving that someone's paid them careful mind. With 3 dozen varieties of beer ranging from Grain Belt Premium to Red Hook to New Zealand's Steinlager, you're sure to find something to go with your meal, be it fish or beef. A decent selection of single-malt and blended Scotches lends button-down propriety; sake enthusiasts like me can indulge in one of a few nicely chosen premium sakes like the slightly sweet, citrussy Umenishiki ($7.75). Bartenders can make a good cosmopolitan, and if you're in a zany mood you can even try one of their dozen novelty drinks, like the bright-green Ninja Turtle ($4.50, gin, blue curaçao, and orange juice).

It's only when ordering appetizers that the first wave of Saji-Ya's odd bent makes itself known. Servers seem to have no clue which items on the menu are available and which aren't. On each of my visits I ordered at least four things that were later found unavailable--I never did get to try the saki-ika, a squid jerky that I've heard is good. Twice when the servers returned with the bad news, they didn't even offer menus again, as if no amount of ordering could bring the variety we had hoped for. Of what I did try, the best were the kinpira ($3.75), a cold burdock-and-carrot slaw that was very tasty, biting, spicy, and bold; and the gyoza ($4.95), beefy, snappy little dumplings with an onion kick.

Japanese pickles ($3.25) are another good bet; the variety of sour, slightly gummy pickles changes often, but they all go well with beer or sake. Less thrilling was the tuna tataki ($7.95), slices of raw tuna drowned in a garlic-ginger soy, and the oshitashi ($3.75), an icy clump of spinach sprinkled with dried tuna flakes.

Salads like the enoki mushroom salad ($7.95) seemed like a cafeteria-issue standard that had mistakenly gotten a tasty hunk of unseparated enoki mushrooms on top, though the sweet and spicy dressing was nice.

The tempura options were fine, and the bento boxes, lacquered trays with various compartments for a variety of dishes, offer crowd-pleasing combinations like shrimp tempura and chicken teriyaki ($13.95), though for my tastes the teriyaki sauce was too corn-syrup sweet and thick. I was terribly disappointed by the sukiyaki ($13.95), traditionally a dish of razor-thin slices of beef cooked tableside in a rich beef broth with a variety of vegetables, noodles, and tofu. It's known in Japan as the "friendship dish" because foreigners love it, but this sukiyaki wasn't making any friends. The dish arrived precooked and mouth-puckeringly salty, topped by beef slices that were too big, too tough, and too fatty--impossible to eat with mere teeth and chopsticks.

I didn't eat in the teppan area, where chefs use their knives with lightning speed to produce flashy grilled treats, though I do know from experience that there's no better place to have a fancy dinner with boys between 9 and 12. (Teppanyaki dinners, with appetizer, soup, salad, and rice, range from $14.75 to $34.95, though most, like the rib-eye steak and shrimp combination, hover around $20.)

The sushi was fine, but not great: I expect sushi to be glimmering, translucent, and carefully presented. Here multiple people's orders were crammed together on one plate family-style, which is nice for sharing but not so nice for aesthetic purposes. While straight-ahead traditional Japanese sushi was lackluster--the maguro (tuna) was dull and grainy, the sake (salmon) was lusterless, the uni (sea urchin) was pallid and dry--the sushi chefs don't seem to make any effort with the American versions either. The caterpillar roll ($9.75), an "inside-out" roll of thin avocado slices around cooked eel, was tiny and made with a browning avocado; the dynamite roll, a thrifty California creation of yellowtail scraps and chili oil, was so spicy it was nearly inedible and so loosely wrapped that the yellowtail tended to drop out from the middle of the roll. The best things I had from the sushi bar were a surprise ama ebi (raw sweet shrimp) which was glistening, opalescent, luscious, and utterly perfect, and an umegiso roll, a tangy vegetarian roll of pickled plum.

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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