9648 Transit Rd, Suite 450, East Amherst, NY 14051
Web: Samurai Japanese Restaurant
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Amherst Clarence Japanese Sushi
"Though we couldn't call Samurai a real local standout in any way, it has recovered from a very weak start to become a good restaurant that is stronger at sushi than other items."
Transit Road in Clarence and East Amherst has had a pretty disappointing track record of offering authentic Japanese cuisine. Sure, you can turn off of Transit onto Klein and find Wasabi, take Maple down to Fuji Grill, or ride Sheridan all the way to Ichiban, but between the sad Sake Cafe, the Benihana wannabe Ichi Shogun, and the brand-new Samurai, it seems like the street has never had a truly great Japanese restaurant to call its own. Though Samurai's proprietors are certainly trying hard, and the place has considerable potential as an upscale sushi shop, it misses the mark due to service-related errors, hugely overaggressive use of sauces, and dishes that were far more decorated than they were enjoyable to eat. Updated December 31, 2009: We've updated the rating and photographs for this article, originally published in 2008, to reflect changes to Samurai in mid- to late-2009.
The Story: Having eaten at superb Japanese restaurants in some very mediocre settings - strip malls, the center of a Tokyo fish market, and many nondescript neighborhoods - we will not knock Samurai for describing its location as "Tops Plaza at Transit Road and N. French Road, next to Super Cuts." If fantastic places such as Los Angeles's famed Sushi Nozawa can be adjacent to nail salons, there's no reason to assume that the discount cell phone or Chinese take-out shops straddling Samurai require this restaurant to be cheap, or cheap-looking. In fact, it's not. When you walk in, you'll probably be impressed by the premium decor and friendly wait staff, and perhaps surprised by the prices on the menu.
At China King next door, you could have an entire entree for $8; here, you'll pay that much just for some of the sushi bar "starters." Many of the specialty sushi rolls sell for $13, while the sushi and sashimi entrees are generally in the $18.50 range, and kitchen entrees with meat start at $12 but mostly hover around $15. These sort of prices come with expectations, and as such, Samurai's failings felt more pronounced and hard to forgive than they might have been at less classy, lower priced alternatives. Try as we did on two occasions to get our meals "right," items often came out differently than they were ordered, and of varying quality when they were correct. Certain items never arrived at all.
Highs: On both of our visits, Samurai's raw tuna quality was superb. Ordered as an en masse bowl (Tekka Tar Tar Don, $18.50), individual pieces of sushi ($2.25 each), and in appetizer Pepper Tuna form ($8), it was obvious that the chef's picks were perfectly fresh. We weren't as thrilled with the albacore tuna, which shouldn't be confused with the restaurant's "White Tuna" ($2.25 per piece), and there wasn't any deluxe Toro (fatty tuna) to be had on either visit. On one of the two occasions we ordered Scallop sushi ($2.25 per piece), we received and liked it; we also really liked the Mango Ice Cream ($3), which was originally inaccurately billed as mango sorbet, and the taste of the soy-based Miso soup ($1.75), which we found milder than at many restaurants, but noted on each occasion was served only a bit above room temperature.
Lows: Samurai's use of sauces borders on the obscene. On the mildly disappointing side was its version of Chicken Katsu ($12) - a fried chicken cutlet - which arrived with a light citrus dressing rather than the traditionally sweet, Worcestershire-heavy Tonkatsu sauce, not tasting right at all as a result. Again, that was only mildly disappointing: virtually every other dish, including sushi rolls, arrived smothered in something creamy.
Most offensive was the aforementioned Pepper Tuna appetizer, which arrived on a bed of lettuce and completely drenched in something that resembled ranch dressing. On our second visit, we attempted to order dishes - including the Pepper Tuna - without the sauce just to see how they were; the Pepper Tuna arrived dry but almost flavorless, and other dishes showed up comparatively less saucy but still covered in the stuff. Even Samurai's oddball version of the classic fried banana dessert ($4), which here consisted mostly of crepe-wrapped bananas, arrived with an indistinct yellow topping and tomatoes on the plate. In all of our travels to Japan, we've never seen sushi or Japanese cuisine in general so aggressively gooed up; the mayonnaise-loving culture thankfully tends to leave its heavy sauces on the side.
There were other issues. A "Red Head" Roll ($11) - spicy crunchy tuna on top of shrimp tempura - arrived green and with different ingredients. Even after consulting the chef, no one seemed to know whether the California Roll was made with real or imitation crab, a concern for a shellfish-allergic diner in our group. Finally, we were served escolar, a somewhat dangerous fish that has been banned in Japan, rather than the albacore tuna sushi we ordered. The confusion comes from the mixed use of the phrase "white tuna" at some restaurants, and occurred despite our specific request that we not be served escolar, as it can cause serious gastrointestinal distress. We weren't sure if the chef or the servers didn't understand the difference, but in our view, escolar really shouldn't be on menus - labeled or unlabeled, as here - anywhere.
The Verdict: Though we would seriously welcome more competition in the local Japanese restaurant space, particularly in the part of Transit where Samurai is located, this particular place still has a lot of work to do before its food is worthy of the prices it's charging. We liked the space, the servers, and the menu, but gave up on trying to force ourselves to enjoy the food after two bad, relatively expensive meals that didn't taste like what we'd ordered. As big fans of both Japanese food and sushi, our advice to Samurai would be to take a good, hard look at what makes this cuisine stand out elsewhere, and radically change either the preparation or the menu options to follow suit. Offer Izakaya fare or authentic Katsu Curry and we'll be back in a heartbeat; otherwise, we'll have every reason to drive right off Transit down to Wasabi instead.
Updated December 31, 2009: We visited Samurai twice for purposes of our 1.5-star review in 2008 and disappointedly wrote it off, but after two visits in mid- to late-2009 - including a visit at the very end of December - we felt that an update to the prior review was warranted. Though the venue's decor remains the same, personnel changes are obvious from the servers to the sushi bar, as are tweaks to the food. Samurai's prior tendencies towards over-saucing dishes are thankfully gone, and the escolar previously served as "white tuna" has been replaced, with a number of changes to the menu. We've replaced all of the photos from our original review, and are adding two paragraphs of new text below.
Our updated 2.5-star rating is based more substantially on Samurai's generally good sushi than other items on the menu, which we'd describe as ranging from fair to good. A Pork Dumpling Soup consisted of three steamed gyoza floating in a chicken broth with sliced green beans and mushrooms - plain and unimpressive - while a Coconut Chicken Corn Soup was a milky, chowder-like broth that mixed chunks of corn with a Thai coconut-style soup and few small pieces of chicken meat, satisfying two people who ordered it. Items in a Chicken Teriyaki Bento Box, interestingly offered at night when many Japanese places sell it only at lunch time, were generously proportioned and generally good, with a surprisingly large portion of tempura - including two big shrimp - in the lacquered black and red box. An appetizer of Soft Shell Crab initially impressed with the large size of the battered and fried crabs, which were pre-sliced and served with a chili dipping sauce, but the meat was almost spoiled from having been in the freezer too long. This is a risk of ordering soft shell crab off-season, but a reason that quality-conscious places don't serve it year-round.
Sushi and sashimi were, however, almost consistently good: not the freshest we've had in the area, but solid. Tuna pieces were thicker than they look from our photo, and every piece of fish sushi and sashimi was at least acceptably tasty, including a piece of sea urchin that didn't look like much when it arrived, but tasted fresh. Rolls were okay: a California Roll was better than an Asparagus Roll, which was stuffed with three nearly flavorless, chewy pieces of asparagus and wasn't worth finishing. Desserts were mixed: the inexpensive Mochi Ice Cream (spelled Moche on the menu) consisted of two standard frozen rice and green tea ice cream balls, cut in half and served with whipped cream - fine - while a Fried Banana dessert was a somewhat elaborately decorated but muddled mix of strawberries and bananas inside a deep-fried tempura shell. Fried Ice Cream surprisingly arrived as a flambe with a long-burning alcohol that produced blue flames for minutes - too long, really - charring the already fried tempura-covered ball of chocolate ice cream. All of the desserts were fine. Though we couldn't call Samurai a real local standout in any way, it has recovered from a very weak start to become a good restaurant that is stronger at sushi than other items. On the edge of 2.25- and 2.5-star ratings, we'd go with 2.5 given the extremely sushi- and sashimi-heavy menu, which you can stray from with greater risks.