Contrary to popular opinion, most restaurant critics don’t live to bash restaurants. Of course, I can only speak for myself, but the truth is that I secretly root for every restaurateur to succeed. Operating a restaurant is a risky enterprise, and I have nothing but admiration for anyone willing to make a go of it. I am, first and foremost, a food and drink enthusiast.
Take Sapa Sushi Bar & Asian Grill. The early reports were not good. I heard tales of sloppy service and less-than-breathtaking food. So, I stayed away and gave the folks at Sapa a chance to remedy the problems.
Every restaurant—but especially independently owned one-offs—experiences birthing pains. I have no qualms about reviewing a new In-N-Out Burger or the 29th Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant after the first week or two of opening, because those places are typically dialed-in from the get-go. But independent eateries sometimes take a little time to get their footing. Such was the case with Sapa.
I never heard any complaints, however, about the restaurant itself. It’s gorgeous, even sexy. The owners—Mai Nguyen and Sean Dang—put a lot of money and sweat into Sapa. The main dining room is trimmed out with orange, squiggly, eye-catching “chandeliers” that look like they came from a science-fiction movie set. The look of Sapa is contemporary and chic, but warm, with a sushi bar elevated above the main dining room and a courtyard in back featuring small, individual wooden huts that are 300 years old.
The owners had them taken apart in Vietnam, shipped to Utah, and then painstakingly reassembled here. But that was only after discovering that the former parking lot where the courtyard is now located was a big sinkhole, resulting in huge expenditures to fix. And Mai and Sean aren’t millionaire restaurant investors—although they do also own West Valley’s Pho Green Papaya.
Sometime, I’d like to relate Mai’s incredible story of coming to this country as a Vietnamese “boat person,” her struggles on the mean streets of Oakland, and her eventual migration to Utah. But, I should really tell you about the food at Sapa.
On my first visit to Sapa, our server tried to steer us toward the worst thing on the Sapa menu: a Philly roll incorporating cream cheese (blech!). Maybe we looked like rubes. In his defense, the server was new to the job and still learning the extensive Sapa menu, a pan-Asian affair that ranges from sushi and sashimi to Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese dishes.
Instead, we started dinner off with Fire Cracker Calamari ($9), a generous bowl of squid rings and tentacles, onion, jalapeno and zucchini pieces, all coated in a light batter and fried with garlic and Chinese five-spice seasoning. We polished off the tasty calamari as our server brought us a warm (not cool, warm) bottle of Two Dog Sauvignon Blanc ($20). I actually had to attempt to pour my glass of warm wine back into the bottle to rest in an ice bucket until it was drinkable, a first for yours truly.
Another appealing Sapa appetizer is the yellowtail carpaccio ($14): paper-thin slices of yellowtail with a garlic-honey-mustard sauce. Better still is Sapa’s poki salad ($12), an incendiary mélange of diced sashimi tossed with spicy (an understatement) honey-mustard sauce and chopped greens. Talk about bringing the heat!
Timing at Sapa can be a bit awkward. At dinner with a party of four, three entrees arrived more or less simultaneously, while a fourth—a sashimi assortment called chirashi ($17)—was mysteriously tardy. Strange, I thought, since the three other entrees had to be cooked, while the raw fish simply had to be sliced and plated.
Once the chirashi dish arrived, however, it was gorgeous and worth the wait: a beautifully presented sashimi assortment of shrimp, salmon, tobiko, yellowtail and tuna with dipping sauce and rice noodles, all artistically garnished with thin slices of cucumber, scallion, fresh ginger, julienned carrot and wasabi. Equally eye-catching was a presentation of massaman beef ($15), which was tender strips of beef in a fragrant massaman coconut-curry sauce, served atop a fried noodle basket and sprinkled with shelled edamame. It was every bit as delicious as it looked.
I suspect someone in the kitchen has an art background, because virtually every dish at Sapa is artfully conceived and presented. The saying goes that we eat first with our eyes—and everything at Sapa looks delectable. What surprised me—especially given those early reports from less-than-enthusiastic customers—was that everything I tasted at Sapa was superb.
The high point of my Sapa meals was a lamb sauté ($16), which was sliced lamb nuggets marinated in curry powder, lemongrass and an assortment of Asian spices, then seared in a wok and served on a bed of sticky rice with grilled asparagus and a yam fritter, garnished with fresh basil. But then, I also really enjoyed a bowl of pho ($7.50) during lunch, with tender, thin beef medallions and perfectly cooked rice noodles in a fragrant, cinnamon-scented broth. A gargantuan “Eel Lover” maki roll ($16) is a California roll topped with thick, tender chunks of cooked eel, including the tail, in a zippy barbecue-style sauce. The only Sapa sour note was an order of aji nigiri ($6), which was small and stingy, easily the most diminutive nigiri I’ve ever encountered.
In all, there’s not much about Sapa that I didn’t like. For anyone unimpressed by its early offerings, you might consider giving Sapa a second look.
SAPA SUSHI BAR & ASIAN GRILL
722 S. State
Thursdays, 6 p.m. Continues through Aug. 28 / Free