8222 Transit Rd, Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: Sake Cafe
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Clarence Fusion Japanese Malaysian Sushi Thai Williamsville
"The restaurant notes on its menu that '[w]e hire experienced staff from the bowels of Western New York,' an interesting phrase that pretty much summed up our impressions."
We will admit to having two biases: we expect our food to be delicious, and we prefer it to be authentic - thus, we would have as much of a problem with a fake American restaurant in Tokyo as with a fake Japanese restaurant in America. For these reasons, we just can't stand Sake Cafe on Transit Road in Williamsville, a restaurant that bills itself as "Asian Fusion with Sushi Bar;" in several attempts we made to enjoy a meal there, we were repeatedly served awful renditions of dishes from a few different Asian cultures. This is the precise reason that we react so negatively to the concept of "Asian Fusion" - namely, those words have long struck us as an excuse to produce half-baked versions of great dishes, and serve them at prices higher than the real thing.
The Story: Sake Cafe occupies a once venerable location on Transit near Maple Road, the site of the formerly wonderful steakhouse Shepherd's Pub, glimmers of which can still be seen if you find yourself seated in this restaurant's rear dining area. Sandwiched between one of Western New York's two best pizza restaurants, Bocce's Pizza, and the area's best supermarket, Wegmans, Sake Cafe isn't just a great location - the very idea of a pan-Asian restaurant here is undeniably exciting. Imagine going to a restaurant, as we have elsewhere, and finding a complete suite of Japanese food alongside selected Chinese, Vietnamese, and Malaysian dishes all under one roof. Then imagine ordering them and finding that they just don't taste right. That was the Sake Cafe we experienced each time we visited.
Highs: Sushi is perhaps the restaurant's strongest point. A menu of expensive special rolls starts at $10 per roll and works upwards to $13, featuring names like Insane Tuna ($11), peppered tuna on top of a crunchy spicy tuna roll with avocado and wasabi-flavored fish eggs; Rainbow Naruto ($10), a cucumber roll covered in tuna, salmon, yellowtail, artificial crab and avocado; and Tropical Lobster ($12), which uses a soy bean wrapper to hold lobster, avocado and mango, topped with wasabi cream. There are also smaller rolls, almost all selling for $5 each, including the typical California Roll ($4.50), Crunchy Spicy Tuna ($5), and Shrimp Tempura ($5). Individual pieces of sushi go for $2 to $3.
By calling these items the "strongest point," we are not endorsing them as consistently good or worthy of their prices. In fact, across several visits, we found the spicy tuna, Insane Tuna, and California rolls to be bland when they should have been tasty; individual pieces of sushi we tried were generally dry. An exception was a fresh scallop, served thinly sliced on the shell, which both looked and tasted good, though still not as moist as it could have been.
It's also worth a note that the decor here is at least interesting, if somewhat inconsistent. The new owners clearly put some money into redoing the first of the restaurant's two rooms, which now features wood-framed booths, new light fixtures, and a nice sushi bar area. While the look has no ethnic consistency - it's somewhat like a modern update of the old Polynesian Tiki bars with some nicer touches - it sort of makes sense until you get to the back room. There, Sake Cafe hasn't done much with the rich dark wood walls that used to make Shepherd's look like an exclusive dining club, apart from placing some visually inconsistent decor items on what used to be bookshelves. On the first night we ate at Sake Cafe, we were placed in this room and almost completely ignored by our server; if you're interested in taking a risk on this place, plan to sit up front, which shouldn't be hard as we found it almost empty on our subsequent visits.
Lows: It's hard to know where to begin on the lows. Our first meal at Sake Cafe was a debacle, with a waiter who found a way to screw up most of our order, delivering it on the late side after we asked whether we had been forgotten in the back room. The restaurant notes on its menu that "[w]e hire experienced staff from the bowels of Western New York," an interesting phrase that pretty much summed up our impressions of that initial meal, minus the part about experience.
Ultimately, it was the food that most seriously disappointed us. From the list of entrees, which range from $11 to $21 in price, we tried the Ton Katsu ($13), a favorite fried pork cutlet dish that is also served in chicken form as Tori Katsu; we were generally unimpressed by the dryness of the meat and the restaurant's inauthentic sauce. Dancing Seafood ($15), described as a "delicate harmony of mussel, shrimp, squid and scallop served in a pineapple shell with Thai house special sauce," was extremely low on the mentioned ingredients, and the sauce so light as to be nearly indistinguishable; it was a profoundly disappointing contrast with the same-named dish at Saigon Bangkok, which has done the concept better for years.
Similar disappointment awaited the yellow curry fan of our group, who ordered the Malaysian Yellow Curry Hot Pot with Chicken ($12), and found the titled sauce watery and bland - weaker than at virtually all of the local places that serve yellow curry dishes. She also ordered the Chicken Satay ($7), an expensive three-skewer grilled chicken dish that is invariably served with a savory peanut sauce, and in Malaysia, possesses strong flavors brought on by a marinade of lemon grass, chili pepper, coriander and turmeric. Here, the satay had virtually no flavor, and when asked for dipping sauce - peanut, hopefully - the server puzzled over the request, and returned with a small dish of peanut butter. "Oh god," our diner said when asked to describe the dish. "It was horrible. Horrible in every aspect." Except it didn't look bad. In fact, most of the items looked nice; pictures sometimes don't give you the right thousand words.
We will mention only briefly the other items we tried - low-flavor Vietnamese-style shrimp Summer Rolls ($4.50), deliberately presented vertically, Beef Negimaki ($5) scallion and beef rolls, and both Tempura Fried Ice Cream and Mochi Ice Cream desserts. These items were forgettable, except for the limp, soggy Summer Rolls, which we actively did not enjoy. The only reason we returned after our initial bad meal was to be sure that we hadn't gotten an inaccurate sense of the place from our originally messed up order; unfortunately, other than the seating, the experience was just the same.
The Verdict: Ultimately, Sake Cafe is perhaps the greatest culinary disappointment we've yet experienced in Western New York - with fairly pricey dishes and sushi that we'd pass on in favor of competitors, its menu references to Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Thai cuisines raised expectations of flavors and quality that it failed in our view to match from dish to dish. While "Asian fusion" restaurants can typically fall back on the easy, sometimes sad excuse that they are inspired by world cuisines rather than needing to properly replicate them, we found Sake Cafe to be closer to a pan-Asian place in that it names specific dishes from various cultures, but failed to offer them as their names would imply.
Having dined at legitimate restaurants of each of these types, both as dedicated individual establishments and shops with pan-Asian menus, we can say with confidence that the items we tried would not pass muster in such places; we've even had better versions of each dish at any of the local places we've visited. Though we would not suggest that every dish here is horrible, or that the place couldn't be fixed with the proper sort of attention to detail, what we were served, and how we were served, left us so utterly unimpressed that we'd rather see some other, smarter restaurant take its place. Even as huge fans of Asian cuisine, we think this plaza would be better off having a steakhouse like Shepherd's back than a place that serves pricey, ersatz versions of historically great meals.