Sakai Japanese Bistro in Troy
A few weeks ago I was asked, somewhat surprisingly, to do a piece on a Japanese restaurant in Troy. Now, I don’t spend much time north of town, so I certainly didn’t expect there to be a Japanese spot complete with hibachi in the northernmost reaches of the Miami Valley. But there it was, nestled amongst the development just west of Troy along Interstate 75. Located in a strip mall next to a Buffalo Wild Wings, I was maybe a tick skeptical. However, much as one might grant legitimacy to a restaurant full of chefs on their day off, Sakai gets a leg up as every time I’ve visited there is a constant flow of Asian clientele – businessmen and families – perhaps due to Troy’s large Honda facility just down the street. Sure, there were families with country accents watching the chef tap-tap-tapping at a hibachi station, but there was also the chatter between the men at the sushi bar, the group behind us eating what appeared to be whole grilled sardines and the couple next to us eating a hand roll filled with nothing but salmon roe – all Asian, at least some presumably Japanese and all enjoying themselves. That said, I felt a bit more certain that they were keeping it real.
Walking past a fountain in the foyer, you enter the main dining room with the sushi station/bar straight ahead. A left brings you to the hibachi section, with four or five grill stations ready for a performance. Both of our visits were spent in the dining room, maybe we’ll go for the show next time.
After ordering a beer and getting settled in, we decided to start with an appetizer while perusing the menu. Only a moment later, our tuna tataki ($8.95) arrived – seared quickly on each side, the kiss of the grill just barely creates a ring around the pretty pink, melt-in-your-mouth perfection of the fresh tuna. Served with a salad and wasabi mayo, it was gone as quickly as it arrived. Close behind the tuna was the veggie bibimbap ($11.95), chicken yakisoba ($9.95) and spider roll ($6.50). The sweet and tangy yakisoba with bits of chicken, seaweed and julienned pickled ginger was very good – a nice starting point with those unfamiliar with Japanese, but at home with Chinese lo mein. The spider roll was good, but the bibimbap was disappointing, as it came without the hot clay pot – and in hindsight, the beef. After noticing, the staff was on top of it, quickly delivering a screaming hot pot to our table, but it just isn’t quite the same without that crispy rice. The service staff was consistently kind, helpful and very accommodating, although perhaps a bit out of their element at times regarding some of the menu items. Anything we needed was delivered very quickly and explanations were offered, or at least faithfully sought out. Upon leaving, an Asian gentleman would visit each departing table, bowing almost profusely in some cases and thanking his guests in multiple languages.
Our last visit was just as successful; there were no clay pot shenanigans this time, however, as we opted for dinner combinations and an appetizer. This time we started with something off of their special appetizer menu – eggplant agedashi ($6.95), four pieces of breaded and fried eggplant placed in a sweet dashi (a dried fish – bonito – a common soup base) soy based dipping sauce and then topped with what appeared to be bits of shaved dashi and grated ginger. A tasty, molten and somewhat unique start to the meal, it was an interesting beginning. Feeling like some variety, we chose the build-your-own combination dinner ($16.95 for two, $23.95 for three) and between the two ended up with salmon teriyaki, California rolls, spicy tuna rolls and tempura udon. The salmon is served skin on, which I always prefer as it gets a bit crispy, and they serve it with a bit of broccoli and a light, pleasant crab salad. Their California rolls, are, well, California rolls and are bigger than any I’ve had. The spicy tuna rolls, on the other hand, were a bit more unique in that the spicy mayo sits atop the tuna rolls, and while not a profound difference, made for a nice presentation on a dependable sushi roll. The tempura udon was also good, another stand-by for those intimidated by a new cuisine. A big bowl of thick noodles in a light broth with two panko battered and fried shrimp; it’s another opportunity for a “gateway” experience, possibly opening someone up to a new cuisine without scaring them away.
I suppose that’s what Sakai, and eating new things from new places, represents – while unexpected, it’s a great way to experience a wide array of Japanese foods, both conventional and unique, taking small steps towards understanding something new. The good people of Troy and the surrounding countryside are lucky to have a little bit of the Far East up north, and if you’re heading that direction and are sick of wings and big fried onions, look for the yellow neon and enjoy the show.
Sakai Japanese Bistro is located at 2303 W. Main St. in Troy. For more information, call 937.440.1302 or visit sakai.tacti.info.
Reach DCP food critic Tom Baker at TomBaker@DaytonCityPaper.com.