Saketini Asian Diner and Lounge

Photograph by Michael Amsler

Sake to Me!

Napa Cal-Asian diner skillfully fuses flavors

By Paula Harris

SAKETINI IS A DRINK: an icy potent cross between a vodka martini and neat sake. It packs a silky punch and isn’t at all as bad as it sounds. Saketini is also a restaurant: a Cal-Asian “diner and lounge” just outside downtown Napa (yes, finally a restaurant imaginatively named for booze other than wine!)–and yes, they do serve the mind-numbing Saketini cocktail.

The result is informal, affordable, and distinctive–a roller coaster of flavors offered in a lively, fun setting.

The cooking is done by Todd Kawachi, who formerly whipped up his innovative Asian-fusion food so successfully at Brix restaurant in Yountville. Kawachi once again brings an exciting blend of Asian-inspired dishes to the table. There’s lots to choose from on a menu where French fries cozy up to stirfries, and burgers hang out with bonito flakes.

There are Japanese sushi and teriyaki dishes; Chinese spring rolls and pot stickers; Hawaiian fresh fish; and American standbys like caesar salad and cheeseburgers. And then there are interesting crossover dishes, like grilled beef hanger steak medallions with sesame ginger sauce; and a surf and turf combo of hibachi grilled salmon and Katsu chicken with steamed rice and stir-fried veggies.

Saketini is a deceptively barebones restaurant (harboring a shadowy hidden lounge and full bar) in a converted bowling alley at the back of the Bel Aire Plaza shopping center at Trancas Street and Highway 29.

It looks like a simple sushi bar, with a long wooden counter, a dozen stools facing the semi-exposed kitchen, unadorned tables, and minimalist decor. But beyond initial casual impressions lies a sophisticated little dining experience (featuring slow jazz on the sound system, flickering candles, and exotic cocktails, plus a good wine list and nimble service) waiting to be discovered.

Naturally, the first thing to do (besides dither over the menu) is order the fabled Saketini ($6), blithely listed on the menu as a “Liquid Appetizer.” The chilled Skyy vodka, dash of Ginjo premium sake, and Sunumomo cucumber garnish (paper-thin slivers of cucumber, onion, and carrot floating in the clear liquid) taste like smooth cold steel with a slight vegetal quality from the garnish. After a coupla good slugs, the menu seems less daunting.

As for the appetizers, “Good for You” miso soup ($2.50) is a restorative broth, brimming with scallion rings, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, and tiny squares of tofu, that’s rich, warm, and not overly salty. But I’m disappointed by the pot stickers ($4.75), which are oil-soaked and contain nasty pellets of overly pink pork filling.

Tonight’s fresh-fish entrée is grilled mahi mahi with black beans and fresh pineapple ($15.95). Although prepared in a light, creamy peanut-flavored sauce, the fish is a bit bland, but the overall effect is light and sophisticated.

There are no vegetarian entrées, although the chef will adapt a couple of the regular menu items, such as the tasty Char Sui pork ramen noodles with shiitake mushrooms in a dashi ginger broth (a deal at $6.95), by omitting the meat.

The highlight of the meal is the spicy grilled Hunan barbecue baby-back pork ribs ($13.95) with steamed white rice and stir-fried veggies. A triumph of ultra-tender meat with a smoky-sweet and slightly spicy baked-on flavor–utterly delicious! You could gnaw on these babies all night.

Tonight’s special dessert–warm apple tart with vanilla bean ice cream ($3.95)–is homey and wonderful, bursting with luscious sweet Granny Smith flavor.

The spacious dance/entertainment area and an adjoining bar (sectioned off by heavy curtains) are open till 2 a.m. and jumping with a lively young cocktail-swillin’ crowd. As I leave, a bopping blonde in a cropped white T-shirt is ordering a Saketini. “Excellent,” drawls the muscular barkeep, over the pulsating Janet Jackson music. “I looove making those!”

Looks like Saketini (the restaurant and the drink) is catching on.

Saketini Asian Diner and Lounge 3900 Bel Aire Plaza, Suite B; Napa; 707/255-7423 Hours: Daily, lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, 5:30 to 9 p.m. (and to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday). Food: Cal-Asian Service: Fast and friendly Ambiance: Restaurant is casual and spare; lounge is lively Price: Moderate Wine list: Good selection, but cocktails are very popular Overall: 3 stars (out of 4)

From the October 12-18, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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