Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Akai Lounge - Japanese Food Mixed with Creativity

Akai Lounge - 507 Columbus Avenue, New York, NY 10024
B Train to 86th Street

In the spirit of trying something new, Dan and I went to a fall tasting dinner at a Japanese fusion restaurant, Akai Lounge. Although it's fairly new to Manhattan, it's been a staple in New Jersey, close to where Dan works. The coolest part was the melding of Japanese food with Latin cuisine.

Akai has invested time into carefully laying out their interior, delivering a relaxing and modern atmosphere. This didn't go unnoticed through their deep red color scheme (red symbolizes love and luck in Japan), comfy, cushion seating, sleek art and soothing music. It almost reminded me of a nice jazz club or somewhere I'd like to spend a weekend evening.

I liked that the front has a spacious bar area and the back offers a quieter dining space that's more private. There, you can find tables for two as well as larger ones, depending on your party. The versatility of the space is a plus and I'd recommend it for a romantic dinner or a small celebration with friends.

If you're a person who embraces variety in your food, Akai will suit you. Their menu is extensive, ranging from sushi, noodle and rice dishes, classic entrees and even some surprises, which I'll tell you about shortly. In our tasting menu, we were lucky to taste a bit of everything including:

Crab Salad - This was a great start to our meal, as the flavors were quite gentle but had a nice kick after each bite. The salad consisted of mixed greens with fresh crabmeat, cucumbers and tempura crunch. We loved the latter ingredient, as it provided an element of surprise that made us both ask "what is that?"

Tartare and Tataki Tasting - It was with this dish that we began to see how creative and inventive Akai's chefs were. The tuna tartare wasn't served in thin slivers as usual--instead, small chunks of tuna were incorporated in a guacamole. Yes, guacamole. I know this is surprising and different, but the combination worked well and it was a great way to soothe the palate after eating the spicy yellowtail that was also on the plate. Something else that stood out was the beef with yuzu ponzu sauce. The beef's delicate flavor mixed well with the citrusy zing of the ponzu--and once we wrapped it in a leafy green, it added an earthy element.

Seafood Pocket and Rock Shrimp Tempura - My favorite dish of the night, I enjoyed this combination plate, which once again presented us with something out of the ordinary. The seafood pocket looked like an empanada, enveloped in a crunchy pastry dough and topped with tomato salsa. Inside, it was filled with shrimp and Alaskan king crab--luxurious ingredients that had just the right amount of spice. My only suggestion would be to put the tomato salsa on the side, as the pastry crust got a tad soggy.

The rock shrimp tempura was out of this world and my clear preference. The shrimp had a fine amount of crispiness on the outside and chewiness on the inside. It was served two ways, one half with chili cream--strong, pungent and flavorful--and the other half with wasabi cream--sharp at first bite but overall soothing. My favorite was the chili cream and I'd highly recommend ordering it.

Chilean Seabass and Skirt Steak - The more traditional part of our meal consisted of meat, fish and potatoes. The seabass was dressed with a sake-miso marinade, which was a bit on the sweet side. I liked it but thought that the fish was slightly overcooked. In spite of this, it was still enjoyable and very fresh.

The seasoning on the skirt steak was a miso based teriyaki sauce. I like a sweet finish to my protein and very much enjoyed the medium cooked skirt steak. The wasabi mashed potatoes were a great way to end on a slightly spicy note. Dan thought that more wasabi could've been used, but I liked it just the way it was - you got a touch of it, not an overpowering whiff.

House Rolls - We couldn't leave this restaurant without trying some of their signature rolls. Overall, I was impressed by the freshness of ingredients and the imagination that went into the combinations. Two rolls stood out to me, one of which was the cleverly-named Pain in the Ass roll, consisting of spicy tuna and lobster salad topped with shrimp tempura, red tobiko and Akai's special house sauce. I thought that the combination of the lobster salad and the tempura worked really well - it had nice crunch and brought comfort to the senses. If you're a shellfish lover and want to indulge, this one's for you.

The other roll that blew me away was the Green River roll, stuffed with crabmeat, eel, grilled whitefish, avocado, crunchy scallions and spicy sauce, topped with green wasabi tobiko. My liking for lobster is evident, and once paired with the creaminess from the avocado, it worked to create the perfect bite.

Ice Cream Tempura - What's not to like about fried ice cream? There were two options in flavors, including green tea (Dan's choice) and the red bean (my choice). Out of those, the red bean was better - it was sweeter and more decadent, while the green tea was on the bitter side. The tempura shell that surrounded the ice cream was delicious, made out of homemade pound cake - again, something unconventional that showed Akai pushing the envelope.

The Drinks - Akai specializes in sake infused drinks and while I'm not a huge sake fan, Dan tried it and enjoyed it with his starter dishes. I ordered a delicious lychee/strawberry martini that was a very girly drink--fruity, tangy and wonderful, it was as easy on the tastebuds, as it was on the eyes.

Service and Cost:
The staff at Akai is not only friendly and hospitable, they've truly invested time and energy into making this place a success. They were happy to explain the process used in making certain dishes, especially the more nontraditional ones. I liked that at the end of the tasting, we were asked for suggestions and constructive criticism--a clear sign, showing that this place wants to continuously improve by taking their customer's feedback seriously.

Costs are moderate to high for Japanese cuisine but note that the quality is excellent.

Appetizers - $5-$15
A La Carte Sushi - $2.50-$4.25
Rolls & Hand Rolls - $3.50-$8
Specialty Rolls - $7.50-$16.50
Entrees - $13-$30
Noodles & Rice Bowls - $9.50-$20

3 Mmmms



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