NEWLY OPENED Saki's is what owners Mindy and Bob Rich call a "fusion" restaurant, but actually the operative word is "eclectic." In other words, instead of traditional dishes, Saki's features food that blends a few bright Asian and Pacific flavors with some American techniques.
Another way of describing this type of cuisine is with the term "Pacific Rim."
Pacific Rim as served here is unique in Western New York, but it has been very big in California for a couple of years.
Physically, the place is stunning -- it's done in tones of black and gray, with bright red accents and bright contemporary prints on the walls. Don't look for corny swords or kimonos.
Contemporary Japanese music plays in the background, and the plates, as they come from the kitchen, show Japanese influence in their beauty.
The food, carefully arranged on black dishes, looks like a painting -- every garnish perfect. Even the take-home food from Saki's is inviting. It's placed in sleek black plastic containers so every element stands out.
The most traditional food at Saki's is served at the bright red sushi bar. A dozen comfortable chairs face inward so you can watch the chef at work. This is true theater even if you're squeamish. A sushi chef is expert with knives, rice, seaweed and slotted mats. And yes, he's an expert with raw fish.
Maybe we should get the terms straight first. "Sushi" is really based on vinegared rice, often adorned with bits of fish or seafood or omelet. "Sashimi" is the chunks of raw fish. We tried the tuna sashimi, which was exquisite. Think of rich pink velvet.
And then the chef sent over some bass sashimi, because, I suppose, we had been recognized.
It was another triumph. The bass was firm and sweet.
Sushi beginners will be pleased to learn that the servers at Saki's will take time to explain the ritual of eating the stuff. In brief: You mix some of the strong green horseradish into soy sauce to make a dip. You clean your palate between bites with bits of pickled ginger. And, if at all possible, you're supposed to put the whole piece in your mouth at once.
Sushi beginners also will be pleased to hear of the California Roll, a sort of American/Japanese adaptation in which an outside layer of rice surrounds cooked crabmeat and avocado. There, now, those particular ingredients are nothing to be afraid of, right?
A California Roll -- enough appetizer for four people -- costs $4.75.
Raw clams and oysters can be ordered at the sushi bar if you prefer, as can cooked shrimp.
Among Saki's soups I strongly recommend the Miso, served in a beautiful covered lacquered bowl ($1.50) and beautifully garnished with tiny curls of green onion and mushroom slices. Miso, based on fermented bean paste, is one of the world's most soothing dishes. It has a gentle, meaty flavor -- Japanese comfort food.
One of our dinner entrees was Chinese, the other American. Szechuan Peanut Chicken ($7.50) turned up generously in a rich and zesty sauce with plenty of hot pepper to pick it up.
Nothing wimpy here. This cook has confidence -- thank goodness, we might add.
Grilled Swordfish With Shiitake Mushrooms was the evening special. Accompanied by a heap of rice and lightly cooked yellow squash, it was fine.
Would you believe we also ordered Shanghai Wings ($4.25)? This clever version of you-know-what comes coated with a semisweet barbecue sauce, garnished with sesame seeds. Plenty of pizzazz in these wings -- again. My compliments to the chef.
Even the Key Lime Pie was great here. Yes, we know that Asian restaurants don't usually feature desserts. But this light, slightly tangy version was a perfect ending to a too-big meal.
Goodwill Department: Last week our ratings box failed to note that it is Rick Anna's Beau Geste on Transit Road, and not just Beau Geste. Anna, son of area restaurateurs, took over the Beau Geste on Sept. 1. We also meant to note that his two-star rating for a new restaurant is provisional.
Unusable column measure
*Indicates the restaurant so new this is a provisional rating.
28 Church St. (852-0012). This very contemporary oriental restaurant is in the basement of the landmark Guaranty Building. There is a sushi bar and a menu that melds Chinese, Japanese, Thai and American flavors. Credit cards: American Express, Mastercard, Visa.
*Indicates that the restaurant is so new this is a provisional rating.
BEST DISH: Shanghai Wings.
NEEDS WORK: Everything is of good quality.
PRICE RANGE: Dinners from about $7 include rice and vegetable. Sushi $1.50 up per piece.
SERVICE: Very good.
HOURS: Lunch, Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday and Saturdays 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Fridays 4:30 to 11 p.m.; Sundays, closed except when there is a home Sabres game.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Use elevator in Guaranty Building lobby.
KEY: FAIR, GOOD, EXCELLENT, EXTRAORDINARY. Stars are awarded for the quality of the food only.