Sakae Sushi is more than just a weird sushi bar—it’s a culinary conundrum waiting to be deciphered. The slick, 60-unit chain recently touched down at Sixth Avenue and 3rd Street in the Village. I sauntered in one sweltering evening—just as the action was heating up on the adjacent outdoor basketball courts—to find the place serene, cool, and only half full.
The interior is decorated in shades of green and brown that might have been inspired by tea. A conveyor belt bisects the room, along which small plates propel, color-coded to show cost ($1.90, $3.90, $6.90). Flanking the belt are tight, two-person booths, each with its own water spigot, at which you can fill and refill your diminutive mug. Interactive monitors positioned alongside the belt point toward each booth, encouraging you to place your order by means of a mouse that slides dangerously close to the spigot.
The screen offers 208 dishes in 28 categories, including raw-fish preparations that extend to Italian carpaccio, but also comprise the entire Japanese menu: noodles, donburi, yakitori, nabemono, sukiyaki, bentos, etc. Customers stymied by computers can place their orders via a crisply uniformed human being, from a giant frog-green menu splashed with color photos. As you sit hungrily contemplating the sushi parade, it will dawn on you that actively ordering freshly made things—delivered directly to your table by the waitstaff—is the way to go. In between bouts of screen-ordering, the hyperactive monitor treats you to photos of Sakae Sushi outposts in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and China, mostly located in glitzy shopping malls.
Some of the sushi isn’t half bad, and the price is right: Inevitably, you’ll pluck down a maki roll or two from the belt just for the hell of it. The tuna roll ($1.90) is clean-tasting, though a very odd shade of pink, while the dragon roll ($6.90) comes wrapped in slippery avocado that’s of just the right ripeness. While facile items wander the belt like lost refugees, more sophisticated choices are available only by special order. When faced with one of the assortments, which feature as many as 47 pieces ($69.95), you’ll find the quality uneven. And why are spring rolls included?
Grazing the “deluxe sushi set” (19 pieces/$18), we found the ebi (raw baby shrimp) fishy-tasting, while swatches of salmon were perfectly OK. We scratched our heads at the flying-fish roe dyed a toxic shade of green, fenced with nori in a style known as gunkan sushi. Next to it was a similar piece heaped with mayo-laced egg salad. Egg-salad sushi? In fact, there’s an entire screen devoted to gunkan variations, including sweet corn, minced eel, and sautéed jellyfish, the latter quite good. Worst of all was a breaded and deep-fried maki roll, heavy as a lead pipe and oozing grease.
Anything made with yellowtail (hamachi) is generally a good bet. Ten thick pieces of yellowtail carpaccio ($13.95) came pinwheeled ’round the plate, heaped with sweating shaved onion and surmounted by salmon roe that looked like little eyes. It was delicious, but tasted more Russian than Japanese. While raw fish at Sakae Sushi can be fine if selected carefully, other evocations of Japanese cuisine are a minefield. Chicken katsudon was good, though the serving was small, but the cold-noodle dish hiyashi ramen, with a symmetrical vegetable julienne, possessed a nauseatingly sweet broth.
Reach for the print menu, read the preface, and voila! The mystery is solved: “It all started in Singapore, when having fine Japanese cuisine and fresh sushi meant spending top dollars. . . . “
I invited my thespian friend Carmen, who grew up in Singapore, to scan the menu. She giggled when she came upon “chicken katsu cheese yaki,” which turned out to be a flattened gray cutlet smothered in cheese sauce flavored with sharp mustard. “That’s like something my Chinese mom would throw together,” she exclaimed. It was awful. According to her, the menu’s obsession with jellyfish turned out to be another tip-off to Singaporean influence, as did the red and rubbery baby octopi.
Maybe the best reason to visit Sakae Sushi isn’t for the cheap sushi or the creative use of jellyfish, but to see what Japanese cuisine becomes when filtered through the combined Chinese, English, and Malay sensibilities of the Singaporeans. With the dollar tanking and new foreign fast-food chains thronging the streets like double-parked cars, will this sort of random globalism be the future of New York dining?