Kuni's, Or, Why Fresh Fish Alone Doesn't Make Great Sushi

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226 Lexington Avenue, Buffalo NY 14222
Web: Kuni's
Phone: 716.881.3800
Rating:    [learn more]

Reasonably fresh sushi with a number of non-sushi Japanese menu items of varied interest; some of the area's best spicy tuna, with good eel and safe sea urchin.


Overpowering wasabi in most uncooked sushi spoils fish flavors; fish was often abnormally light on flavor. Nothing special rice and mediocre shrimp tempura detract from sushi offerings.

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"Many of the raw pieces we tried were abnormally light on flavor - not in a good, subtle way - and the chef appeared to have a really itchy wasabi trigger finger."

Forgive us, but this must be said: restaurant reviews in The Buffalo News aren't worth the paper they're printed on. We've considered them a point of local shame for decades, so embarrassingly bad that we'd blame them for damaging the depth and breadth of Western New York's culinary understanding. Case in point is last week's four-star review of Kuni's, a sushi restaurant on Lexington Avenue in Buffalo, which somehow managed to render only one word - yes, one word - of opinion on the place's sushi. Instead the review discussed, in order, such weighty topics as caressing the interior wood, the "taco salad - Asian style," the chef "who knows us," and basically everything except for the sushi. It was ridiculous. So we're going to set the record straight.

Years ago, there were two Buffalo establishments known for especially superb, authentic Japanese food: Osaka on Main Street, and Kuni's on Elmwood. The former was a full-service restaurant, and the other was a considerably smaller sushi bar. Then Osaka disappeared, Kuni's folded - reopening later as a take-out location called Kuni's To Go - and other restaurants began to dominate the local Japanese dining scene. We've reviewed most of them, and notably, none have come close to a four-star rating. Fuji Grill is probably the closest to three and a half stars, but still not there, and Wasabi has the looks but not the tastes to earn high praise. It is entirely possible that some incredible, wizened sushi chef could show up here and blow these places out of the water on quality, but as newer places such as Ichiban and Samurai suggest, we wouldn't hold our breath.

If any place had a shot, it was Kuni's. The bedrock of this place is its sushi bar, which was the core of the first Kuni's and then Kuni's To Go, so that's where we sat, directly in front of the proprietor-slash-sushi chef and his apprentice. Surprisingly, in a break from most of our sushi bar experiences, they were silent throughout most of the meal, and a server was dispatched to take all orders. We really appreciated the server's attentiveness, but felt like a personal touch was missing behind the counter of the bar.

Thus, while we looked with interest at the ancillary collection of non-sushi items - 23 options, including variations such as two versions of the Chinese dumpling shumai, two types of deep fried tempura, and four different grilled fish - we were mostly interested in the raw fish. It had been years since we visited the original Kuni's, but that's where the new venue's menu still puts most of its weight: there are at least 45 sushi options, even before you get to the sashimi and similarly raw or lightly cooked "sushi bar specialties." To show up at Kuni's and not order sushi would be akin to showing up at Domino's but avoiding the pizza. And to review Kuni's without trying lots of sushi would be akin to... well, malpractice.

So we went crazy with the sushi. Originally, we considered asking for "omakase" (pronounced oh-mah-kah-say), the sushi patron's decision to forgo ordering in favor of letting the chef pick the best sushi available. But we decided not to do that; we wanted to try a lot of different pieces. So we did. We ordered pieces of tuna ($2.50), yellowtail ($2.50), seared albacore ($2.50), mackerel ($2), squid ($1.75), sea urchin ($3), grilled eel ($2), octopus ($2.25), striped bass ($2), scallop ($2.50), and sweet tofu ($1.25). To make sure we weren't missing anything too Americanized, we also sampled that unfortunate classic, the California roll ($3.75), a Spicy Tuna roll ($4), and more. Before we finished ordering, we inquired if we'd missed any especially fresh fish, but were told there wasn't anything noteworthy besides that night's "special," tilapia sushi - typically low-grade frozen fish that places try to pass off as red snapper. We skipped it; make of that what you will.

First, the good news: Kuni's fish ranged from unspoiled to fresh, and there were a couple of very notably good pieces of sushi in the bunch, specifically items that called for seasoning. The spicy tuna was amongst the best we've had locally, properly flavored, without the overbearing presence of mayonnaise found elsewhere; similarly, the brown, grilled eel was everything that it should be: sweet, properly glazed, and entirely unlike what a first-timer would expect the long, slithering fish to feel like - it was soft, yielding, and boneless. Similarly, though the sea urchin wasn't the freshest or most delicious we've tasted - even in the last month - it was certainly good enough in both regards to go down without a struggle. True sushi fans will understand what that, an 8 out of 10, means on the sea urchin scale.

Now for the bad news: many of the raw pieces we tried were abnormally light on flavor - not in a good, subtle way - and the chef appeared to have a really itchy wasabi trigger finger. Or perhaps a broken dispenser; virtually every individual piece we ordered was armed with a nose-blasting kick of the spicy green horseradish, spoiling the fish above and the rice below. Yes, we used the word "spoiling," specifically to mean that otherwise good pieces of sushi were ruined in flavor by the wasabi. It's no wonder that The Buffalo News made so little mention of the sushi: with the exception of the eel, the pieces were generally so unbalanced that a four-star review would have been impossible after tasting them, and serious sushi fans like us wouldn't want to return to suffer through a similar experience again. This wasn't legit, Ginza-style sushi - sometimes served with just a little extra wasabi - or off merely because of the wasabi. It was also the rice, and in some cases, the fish, too. Just wrong. Only those who use Wegmans' sushi or spicy chicken wings as benchmarks would have been pleased by many of the pieces we ordered.

To be very clear on this point for those who haven't experienced great sushi, just as it would be foolish to judge the quality of a steak purely on the grade of its meat, excellent sushi is not merely the product of fresh fish. Other elements - an improperly vinegared, cold or dry bed of rice, too much of that sinus-tickling wasabi, or pieces of limp, soggy nori seaweed - can take away from a superb piece of sushi, as easily as submerging it in a heavy sauce or improperly balancing its elements. The best sushi we've had, at venues such as Tsukiji Market's Sushi Dai or Los Angeles' Sushi Nozawa, treats the meat, rice, wasabi and nori with individual reverence that is obvious from our photos, such that the fish sparkles, flops off of the sides of the warm or body temperature rice, and the bite-sized packages almost melt in your mouth. It's the difference between a freshly made Krispy Kreme and a stale donut that's been sitting for a day in the box, except there's a good chance that the glistening sushi treat is also better for you. A four-star sushi restaurant either gets the balance right or fakes it so perfectly that you're too busy drooling to taste the mistakes.

Kuni's sushi had other issues, as well. While purists might opt for the classics, the specialty rolls and items were very limited by local standards. Flavor was a bigger concern. A shrimp tempura roll was as lifeless as any we've tasted, the dry rice and flat fried shrimp literally requiring soy sauce to slide down the throat. The California roll and yellowtail roll were unmistakably bland, the former with too much avocado, not enough artificial crab.

And perhaps because we expected too much - say, true karaage, as we've enjoyed in Japanese izakayas - the menu's "KFC," or "Kuni's Fried Chicken" - struck us as nothing special, closer to a snack at Arby's than an item worthy of a four-star rating. If it hadn't included a sliced, squeezable lemon, we'd have expected to find a plastic cup of barbecue sauce on the side. Our attempt to order a different izakaya favorite, miso and sake-marinated black cod ($12), was foiled as "out of stock;" unfortunately, none of the other, more familiar menu items - Squid Rings ($7), Vegetable Tempura ($6), or Tofu Gyoza ($6), for instance - struck us as an equally interesting replacement. We could have eaten more, but opted to go elsewhere for dessert.

Ultimately, our 2.5-star rating of Kuni's isn't based upon the small (25-seat) but nice venue, any interactions - or lack thereof - with its chef, or some desire to impact the restaurant's business positively or negatively. Those aren't the proper touchstones of a good or fair restaurant review. Rather, our rating is based upon the fact that we paid $30 per person before taxes and drinks for a meal that we wouldn't repeat. It is based on the small plate of sliced Cajun Tuna that found itself unfinished by the diners sitting next to us, a reflection that we weren't the only ones who didn't find every bite "delectable." And it is based on the fact that as we close out 2008, this place offers little - perhaps nothing - that you can't find elsewhere in the area, and probably better. Years ago, Kuni's stood out in a town that had few Japanese options, but today, you can find better sushi, menus, and value in the suburbs. As caressable or otherwise superficially appealing as its decor may be, it's obvious that Kuni's is not the standout on food that it once was, or could well have been. To hold it up as an example of perfection is, in our view, a disservice to the many local places that do more, say nothing of the comparatively fantastic out-of-town options that conclusively prove that we can and should expect better.

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Comments (2)

Jeff :

I'm confused and shocked that someone could approve of Fugi Grill and not like Kuni's. IMO there is no comparison. I think you need to revist Kuni's as we were just there 12/12/09 and felt the sashimi was of exceptional quality and feel that Kuni is really in fine form. Certainly he's not the most personable sushi chef in the world, but his two recent additions behind the bar are more then willing to engage in small talk. In fact we were discussing the merits of Kuni's mackerel with one of his assistants. As stated by the chef, Kuni is the only person in town that sources fresh mackerel and cures it himself. It really is some of the best mackerel we've tried.

Jeff, as noted in the review, we don't patronize or rate restaurants based on the personalities of the owners or whomever might be cooking that day. Dining at a restaurant is an "experience," but the core of that experience in our view is the quality of the food. Over the past five or ten years, there has been far too much of a national focus on trying to turn chefs into celebrities, and far too little focus on whether the food they make offers great value for the dollar, truly great flavor, and great presentation. We know amazing sushi pretty well (see here for a start), and when we find it locally - or don't - we call it out.

We don't view the local restaurant scene as being zero-sum (i.e. in order for one sushi restaurant to win, another needs to fail), but rather one in which many restaurants can succeed simultaneously by focusing on offering great food and differentiating themselves from their competitors. Kuni's stood out to us primarily because of its overpowering use of wasabi, which was way off the mark for anything we've eaten locally or internationally. The fish - all the fish, not just one type - should be the star of the show at a place that primarily focuses on sushi.

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