When Kuni Sato cut his first piece of raw tuna at Saki’s, the Guaranty Building basement was the only place in town you could buy sushi. Now that supermarkets stock sushi next to the cold cuts, that seems as old-fashioned as asking an operator to connect your call. Saki’s opened in 1992, before he arrived, so it might not be accurate to call Sato “Buffalo’s first sushi chef.” But in the 19 years since he opened his own place, Sato’s record of consistent sushi excellence has, without question, earned him the title of First Chef of Buffalo sushi. ¶ Add a carefully calibrated set of Buffalo-pleasing non-sushi dishes such as steak salad and fish fry that have been filtered through Sato’s aesthetic of simplicity, freshness and lightness, and Kuni’s has become a prized Buffalo restaurant.
Some of the most popular forms of sushi in Western New York, like rolls swaddled in blow-torched mayonnaise and drifts of crunchy tempura flakes, are not classic Japanese sushi. They are Westernized versions, the General Tso’s chicken of sushi. Considering their ubiquity, Kuni Sato could no doubt make money selling them, but he won’t. He will also not sell you a Philadelphia roll of cream cheese and smoked salmon. If you want the best Japanese-style sushi in town, though, Kuni’s is the place.
Classic Japanese sushi values proportion, precise execution and simplicity; it’s like having haiku for dinner. That might seem vague until you eat sushi in Japan, or at Kuni’s.
The rice is better, to start. Sushi doesn’t mean fish, after all, but rice seasoned with vinegar. Leave the McDonald’s sushi behind for once and try Kuni’s. Perhaps then you’ll notice that other sushi rice can vary from chalky to gummy, from tasteless to over-vinegared. That the forest-green seaweed, or nori, has actual flavor, a toasty sea-green note, and isn’t just there for structural support. That a slice of sashimi (raw fish) can remind you of butter, of rare filet mignon, of anything but the word “fishy.” Such are the sushi discoveries at Kuni’s.
My favorite from a recent visit were rolls of salmon skin ($3.50) and eel and avocado ($4.75) that approached sushi perfection at supermarket sushi prices. (The supermarket rolls are bigger, but super-sized sushi is, you guessed it, not Japanese.)
Salmon skin roll was slightly warm, firm-grained rice and nori around crunchy little nuggets of salmon skin that were like bacon bits of the sea. The combination of eel and avocado was lush as pork belly, but delivered in a tidy one-bite package with an exquisitely metered protein-to-rice ratio. Avocado, not native to Japan but now widely enjoyed there, is as fusion as Kuni’s gets.
Sashimi is slices of raw fish, straight up, no rice. The good stuff costs as much as fine beef, bite for bite, but doesn’t leave you feeling like you ate a cow. We assembled a platter of sliced tuna – which reminded me of rare filet – buttery yellowtail and amberjack ($3.50-$4 a piece), and mused over the distinct sensations.
Kuni’s also serves a great fish fry, one that speaks Japanese ($12). The fish was two banana-sized cod filets in crispy panko-crumb crust, served with housemade tartar sauce. It was fortified with pickles and fresh dill and parsley, so compelling that after the fish was gone I started looking for a spoon. On the side was a dab of Japanese slaw, Napa cabbage, daikon radish and carrots sliced atoms-thin, in a gossamer coat of plum dressing. It was the lightest salad I have ever eaten that satisfied me. A small plate is $6.
There’s a boatload of little sensations at Kuni’s, enough for one or two bites, before the table moves on. Combined with its deep collection of Japanese whiskeys, beer and sakes, that makes Kuni’s an excellent place for an exploratory meander through classic Japanese delights. Anyone who’s ever thrilled to foie gras needs to try ankimo ($8), which is monkfish liver, poached in torchon form and served with daikon sprouts and a judicious splash of light soy. It has most of the flavor of foie and half the fat, with a whisper of the ocean.
Chewy nuggets of crispy fried octopus with a spicy teriyaki sauce ($10) was a hit, and a small plate of tempura-fried shrimp, scallops and squid ($9) was good. But it’s the tonkatsu ($12) that will shut up the guy who came to Kuni’s even though he hates seafood. It’s a crispy deep-fried pork chop sliced and served on a plate with a schmear of eye-wateringly strong mustard, sweet Worcestershire-laced ketchup and a dab of that Japanese slaw. It’s meaty proof that Kuni’s knows more than fish and rice.
Kuni’s is so popular that it doesn’t take reservations, meaning you should be open to killing an hour with a cocktail nearby until you’re seated. Also, looking for dinnertime parking in the Elmwood Village is one of the less endearing metropolitan features of Buffalo life.
Having hoovered my share of mayonnaise sushi and supermarket tuna rolls, I understand doubts that sushi is worth the pain of going to Kuni’s. I understand convenience. I eat Mighty Taco. But I don’t go there for Mexican food. If you want to learn what Japanese cuisine is like, go to Kuni’s.
If that fails to move you, it’s probably for the best. There’s no room for you anyway.
Kuni’s - 9
Authentic Japanese sushi; dishes make tiny restaurant a city favorite.
WHERE: 226 Lexington Ave. (881-3800, kunisbuffalo.com)
HOURS: 5 to 9:45 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 10:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Sushi, $1.25-$32; soup and salad, $1.75-$15; dishes, $5-$16.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.