The eye of the hurricane. An island of serenity. A place where you can converse without shouting.
And all of this exactly one block from Casino Niagara. I didn't believe it myself when a trusted friend told me about Taki, to tell the truth.
But this restaurant exists amid the hullabaloo and seems to thrive, though it does seem to have weathered its share of identity crises.
A hand-lettered sign on the front door states firmly that this is a Japanese restaurant and doesn't deal with matters Chinese. "No buffet!" it exclaims.
And thoroughly Japanese Taki is, probably the most authentic restaurant in this immediate area.
The first things you see when you enter are the traditional plastic food models used to help eliminate the language problem. Many of the special items you'll find on the menu upstairs are carefully copied, labeled and lined up for your inspection.
This dazzling display sits right next door to a handsome red tori gate.
Upstairs, it's all quiet elegance. Understated colors are the rule here (though the carpets could use some rejuvenation). There's a sushi bar and a section of the dining room reserved for tatami service. The table is suspended over a pit, and when you sit at it, your legs dangle. Cheating, yes, but it's easier on the knees than sitting on the floor. And it's fun.
Big menu here. We shared three appetizers. The first was edamame ($4, all prices are Canadian). The boiled green soybeans pop out of the pod and are as addictive as potato chips, but are much healthier. A genuine culinary miracle!
Also, crisp Kara Age Chicken, batter-fried bits with a good crunch to them ($6), and Age Dofu, which is fried tofu ($4.50). All served handsomely on pretty china, chopsticks accompanying as a matter of course. (You'll have to ask for forks.)
You get a lot to eat in this restaurant. Each dinner comes with rice, miso soup and fresh salad.
The miso is served in a handsome lacquer bowl dotted with tofu bits and rings of green onion. Pick up the bits and then lift the bowl and drink. The fresh salad is served with a miso dressing in an even prettier bowl.
Main courses are served generously and probably should be shared by at least two diners. Chicken Teriyaki ($14.50) and Beef Teriyaki ($15.50) were both tender and subtly covered with that sweet soy sauce.
The Tempura Dinner ($18.50) was heaped with deep-fried shrimp and vegetables alongside a ginger dipping sauce.
My favorite course of the evening - and it was outstanding - was the Unadon, broiled eel with an almost barbecue flavor, served atop the rice that soaked up the rich flavor. The dish is served in a handsome lacquered box.
There's so much to eat in this restaurant, including a full line of sushi and sashimi offerings, that we only dented the menu's surface. More research is definitely on the agenda.
But should you crave dessert, you can indulge in Green Tea or Red Bean Ice Cream.
TAKI *** 1/2
WHERE: 5500 Victoria Ave., Niagara Falls, Ont. (905-357-7274). Serenity within one block of the casino. This Japanese restaurant is traditionally decorated and offers sushi as well as dinner entrees. Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
FAVORITE DISH: Unadon (broiled eel and rice)
NEEDS WORK: All food of good quality
PRICE RANGE: Dinner entrees include miso soup and salad from about $14 (Canadian funds).
SERVICE: Very good
NOISE LEVEL: Low
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily
HEALTHY CHOICES: Many seafood and vegetable dishes are healthy.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: The restaurant is on the second floor, but there is an elevator.
PARKING: No-charge lot behind the restaurant.
KID APPEAL: If they are adventurous, they'll love it.