A Spokane institution recently received a much-needed facelift.
The Suki Yaki Inn Japanese restaurant has been around for some 45 years, which is an amazing stretch in the restaurant biz. But by the time original owner Harry Omine retired last year at 80, the place was a shadow of its former self. It was dark, dirty and thoroughly unappetizing. Some people referred to it as the “Super Yukky.”
Enter Amy Collett, an industrious waitress who had worked at the Suki Yaki for 17 years. She bought the place and began making it over.
With the help of her friend, Richard Pozzi, she introduced a sushi bar, started serving lunch, painted the dining rooms in bright, cheery hues and added an inviting waiting area in the entry. The outside has a spiffy new coat of paint, too.
By far, the best addition to the restaurant is the sushi bar, which is manned by the friendliest itamae (sushi chef) in Spokane.
Japanese dining is traditionally such a formal affair that it borders on ceremony. Foods are served in a very particular order and placed on the table in meaningful arrangements. Food is prepared to make a visual impact, to be a reflection of nature.
A good sushi bar, however, is completely casual. At least in this country. How often do you find yourself sitting with strangers at a meal and actually striking up a conversation? Ideally, a great sushi spot has the feel of a bar where everybody knows your name.
At the Suki Yaki, Kevin Miyamoto is a most congenial sushi chef. When I visited the sushi bar last Friday evening, Miyamoto ably juggled numerous orders while chatting with customers. He made some good recommendations, suggesting the round clam instead of the geoduck and touting his spicy tuna roll. A sushi chef builds credibility when he makes good recommendations.
For the uninitiated, sushi is simply fish draped over or rolled in flavored rice. Nigri sushi is bite-sized pieces skillfully sliced and laid on top of a mound of sticky rice. Maki is the rolled sushi. The most famous maki sushi is a California roll, with crab, avocado and cucumber.
Here’s a bit of sushi trivia: The green stuff on the outside of a roll, called nori, is often referred to as seaweed. But it’s actually made of algae.
Most people think of sushi strictly as raw fish, but there are plenty of cooked choices. Eel, for instance, is grilled before it’s served. Other cooked sushi favorites are shrimp, salmon and octopus.
During my trip to the sushi bar at the Suki Yaki, I tried the raw and the cooked, sampling a lovely, delicate yellow tail (hamachi), a slightly sweet and chewy round clam (hokkegai) and a tender tuna (maguro). The fish was all exceedingly fresh, having arrived just that afternoon from Seattle and San Francisco. The restaurant receives fresh seafood at least twice a week.
Of the maki sushi, I really enjoyed the house roll which was salmon and shrimp rolled “inside-out” with the nori tucked inside and tiny flying fish roe decorating the outside. Anyone squeamish about caviar should give this itty-bitty fish egg a try. It has a mild flavor and adds a nice crunch to the roll.
Other interesting choices were the futo maki, a vegetarian roll with egg, spinach and shiitake mushrooms and the spider maki. That soft shell crab-filled roll makes for dramatic presentation with a claw exploding out of the top of the roll. Yes, it’s supposed to look like a spider.
My favorite sushi at the Suki was Miyamoto’s specialty - a caterpillar roll. It featured the delicately grilled eel covered in a slightly sweet sauce and then enveloped in an inside-out roll.
The creation was transformed into a creepy crawler by a beautifully cut, perfectly ripe avocado. It almost looked too good to eat, but that sentiment lasted all of 30 seconds. When I sunk my teeth into that caterpillar, I was impressed with its super rich flavor. The eel and avocado were a nice match.
Over the course of the evening, Miyamoto was able to keep up his friendly banter with his customers while creating these gems.
Unfortunately, my foray into the rest of the menu wasn’t as successful. At lunch, there are different bentos (a complete lunch served in a lacquer box) featured Monday through Friday. It’s a good introduction to Japanese food, starting on Monday with teriyaki chicken and gyoza (a pork-filled dumpling). The bentos include a salad, rice and some fresh fruit, which is a nice touch. However, the teriyaki chicken I tried was dried out and didn’t have much flavor.
I didn’t have much better luck with the udon, fat noodles swimming in a too-salty broth. I liked the bits of ginger that decorated the bowl, but the teriyaki beef that was served on top of this soup had an off-taste that led me to believe it had been cooked earlier and held.
You can order off the full menu while you’re sitting at the sushi bar, too, and I recommend the shrimp tempura appetizer. It was a generous portion (accompanied by yummy slices of sweet potatoes) and had a nice crispy coating.
Of the traditional dinners, the best sellers are the torikatsu, a deep-fried chicken breast served with plum sauce and a beef dish sauteed with mushrooms and fresh ginger called batayaki.
The restaurant’s namesake, sukiyaki, is slices of beef sauteed with napa cabbage, bean sprouts and bean threads in a mixture of soy sauce and sweetened sake. I decided to skip it after seeing it served to a neighboring table. It just didn’t look appealing.
Newcomers might be surprised to find curry on the menu at the Suki Yaki, but that fiery dish was long ago adapted into Japanese cuisine from its Asian neighbors. The Japanese-style curry uses Indonesian spices and flavors the mixture with applesauce and honey.
The new owner promised the founder of the restaurant to keep on with his menu. But she has plans to introduce new seafood selections and vegetable dishes by the first of next year.
It’s heartening to see that restaurants with a lot of history can survive in this competitive market - if owners are willing to evolve.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: SUKI YAKI INN JAPANESE RESTAURANT Address/phone: 119 N. Bernard/ 624-0022 Days/hours: Lunch, Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner daily 5-11 p.m. Meals: Traditional Japanese, sushi bar Price: lunch, around $7; dinner $10.50-$17 Reservations: yes Credit cards: AE, DC, DSC, MC, V Personal checks: yes