by Lauren McAllister

What I remember most about the film Lost in Translation was the dreamy quality of the nightspots, with the flashing lights and pulsating music. While Aki's isn't perhaps as big as the restaurants featured in the movie, it manages to bring the Tokyo vibe right into the Inland Northwest. Relocated six months ago from its old home at 5 N. Stevens St. (where it was known primarily as a lunch spot), the new Aki's is bigger and aiming for more "after-dark" customers.

"We're not a shop that you would typically find in Spokane," says owner Kau Moua. "People are like, 'Are we really in Spokane?" He explains that Aki's deliberately caters to a younger crowd than many restaurants, "We appeal to the college crowd, the newer generation, people that are more health-conscious. Sushi has been around for 30-odd years, but it was never really seen as a trend. Since I have been in the business, now I see movies mentioning it and every grocery store has it."

And because those young people may not have a whole lot of do re mi, Aki's keeps prices reasonable. "Spokane is frugal. We have to market ourselves in a certain dollar amount," says Moua.

That's great news, whether you fall into the demographics Moua is courting or not. On a recent Saturday night, as the dinner crowd was giving way to the after-dark set, we started with the edamame ($2.50). I can't remember the last time I saw something for under $3 on the menu of restaurant that didn't have a drive-up window. Although it would be hard to mess up soybeans steamed in their pods, this was a generous portion, served piping hot, with just the right amount of crunchy salt. We quickly devoured them.

There was a bit of a wait for our next course, "the Bomb," so we had time for a little people-watching, as well as taking in some of the basketball game on the big flatscreen behind the bar. While we waited, the DJ set up his system, lights dimmed and the candle on our table was lit. The foreign quality of the narrow space increased, underscored by techno-dance rhythms as more people crowded around the bar.

When "The Bomb" ($8.50 for eight pieces) finally arrived, we quickly understood why it is one of the most popular items on the menu. Tuna, salmon and avocado are the stars of this lucky number 13 on the list of "specialty rolls," with a bit of cream cheese and some scallions to add interest. Those ingredients are rolled up in a seaweed wrapper, and the whole thing is fried in tempura. Served with sesame seeds and eel sauce, the quick tempura frying melts the cream cheese and cooks the tuna and salmon just enough to make them more palatable for those squeamish about raw sushi. This was a rich, salty treat that managed to maintain that fresh, earthy quality of Japanese cuisine.

Next came our entrees. My companion splurged on the most expensive one on the menu -- the tempura shrimp at $6.25. Nice-sized prawns were fried in the same light batter, served with rice and tempura vegetables, and it came with a salad with a nice ginger dressing. The little container of sauce was good for dainty dipping, or in the heat of the moment, dumping over the whole shebang to savor with the rice. My vegetarian meal checked in at $5.25 and was basically the same as the tempura shrimp, except that some creamy tofu took the place of the shrimp. Although all of the veggies were tasty, the sweet onions were especially good with the tangy sauce.

Our server apologized a number of times for the slow arrival of our meal -- they were getting pretty busy with twentysomethings carrying around large Japanese beers -- and practically insisted on some sort of complementary item from the menu. Finally we took him up on his offer of another beer and lingered a bit longer at our table, enjoying the efforts of the live DJ.

While Aki's food is very fresh and prepared well, the menu sometimes errs on the side of economy -- they use imitation crab in some sushi rolls, for example. Still, Moua says he's after more than just a dining experience, and that has allowed him to be creative with the menu. "Our rolls are distinct in certain ways -- that's really not the norm. What I care about is creating an atmosphere." For example, he says Thursday night has been designated karaoke night. "We try to get everybody involved so they feel like they're a part of it. We try to get everyone singing along." Moua also insists on good customer service: "We have lots of high-end clientele, but everybody comes in and feels like they are somebody."

So go be somebody -- somebody cool and feeling far from little old Spokane, if only for a few hours. You can't afford not to.

Publication date: 2/24/05

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