by Mike Corrigan

T here's no room for error when preparing sushi. In other cuisines, sauces, gravies and fistfuls of herbs can mask all manner of culinary horror. And God knows if you cook anything long enough, you can dumb down the flavors of just about any dish so much that any trace of potential foulness is eradicated. No so with the simple, colorful and often in-the-raw ingredients of sushi, that delicious and visually enticing Japanese import. Working with a purposefully limited palette, sushi chefs create bite-sized jewels that excite the tongue and dazzle the eye with fresh ingredients (nothing else will do). Besides, they know how to fling around their knives.

Aki's Grill and Sushi Express (located near the corner of Sprague and Stevens) is small and intimate in a way that encourages conversation with strangers as well as with the two guys taking and preparing orders behind the counter. The interior space is neat, clean and tastefully decorated in a modern Japanese style with seating that is strictly counter-side. Napkin dispensers, soy sauce and containers bursting with chopsticks are strategically placed along the perimeter. There's also a tray of plastic forks and spoons at one end for those with limited finger coordination.

Dining at the lunch counters and looking out through the windows over Stevens, you feel a little as if you've been transported to Metropolis, where in-and-out dining at street level is part of the daily ritual. In the bustling core of any city, places like Aki's serve a vital function by supplying discriminating tastes with inexpensive yet interesting sustenance that can be quickly prepared to order and dispatched without fuss on the premises or taken to go.

"Most of my clientele are business-oriented," says owner and chef Kau Moua, who took over the restaurant from his aunt in October. "They're a little more sophisticated and adventurous. I think people who know sushi will look for it. Even though we're getting more and more new customers, usually they are brought in by someone who knows sushi."

That may be, but the atmosphere at Aki's is so relaxed and friendly, and Moua is so helpful, that even sushi beginners should feel at ease here almost immediately.

In addition to sushi, the menu features grilled chicken, steak and salmon with teriyaki sauce ($4.50-$5.50), tempura shrimp and veggies, chicken yakisoba noodles ($4.75), chicken fried rice ($4.50) and miso soup ($1 a cup). Everything here is reasonably priced, encouraging experimentation with two or more items. The rolled sushi platters all contain six to eight pieces (with filling and rice wrapped in nori) and come served with the chef's choice of three nigiri (hand-formed) pieces, a dollop of wasabi and tiny pile of pickled ginger. The tempura shrimp ($5.50) and the teriyaki entrees are served complete meal-style with tempura vegetables (zucchini, onion ring and carrot), steamed white rice and a small lettuce salad.

We honed in on two sushi platters: the crunchy roll ($6.50) with a filling of tempura shrimp, cream cheese and avocado, and the spicy tuna roll ($5.50) with a filling of spicy scallions and tuna. Each came with the promised "chef's choice" of nigiri -- in our case, one each of raw salmon, raw tuna and lightly seared albacore. The spicy tuna roll packed minor chili-derived heat and tasted as good as it looked (especially when dipped in wasabi-laced soy sauce). With the crunchy roll, the combination of textures (crispy, smooth, chewy) and the pleasant mouth feel of fried tempura took center stage. The nigiri was heavenly. I still can't get over how amazing -- and non-fishy -- raw fish can be when fresh and properly prepared. (Moua says his fish is trucked in daily from Seattle.) The albacore nigiri was especially good -- lightly seared on the outside, creating a wonderful contrast between the sensation of cooked fish and the soft, buttery texture of the raw interior, all accented by the tang of soy and the light crunch of green onion.

We also ordered a steak teriyaki entr & eacute;e ($4.75). Sitting on a huge pile of steamed rice was a sliced-up steak, grilled to tender perfection and lightly drizzled with teriyaki sauce. The tempura veggies were very light and not greasy -- crisp on the outside, tender and flavorful on the inside. The green salad appeared to be of the packaged variety but was of high quality and was greatly enhanced by the very ginger-y house dressing.

Moua says he'll soon have a beer and wine license to better serve the needs of his dinner guests. Even though he plans on eventually moving his restaurant to new digs -- his current building is possibly being razed -- he's intent on growing his business slowly, maintaining quality all the way. He has already come a long way and has received votes of confidence from the most discriminating of all possible patrons, local Japanese and Japanese-Americans.

"They are crucial because they are the ones who know what sushi and tempura and teriyaki is supposed to be," he says. "Their feedback has been awesome."

Publication date: 03/20/03

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