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Sapporo's sushi is dynamite, though. Even the most basic nigiri is picture perfect, including maguro (tuna) so fresh, meaty and amply cut that it reminds me why, years ago, I first fell in love with the raw fish. In such company, hamachi (yellow tail) is less impressive, more dry than silky, yet it's still a top cut. Tako (octopus), which can get rubbery in a hurry, comes perfectly sliced in thick rounds, piled with cucumber and splashed with tart-sweet vinaigrette for a compelling tako sunomono salad.
Maguro takes a fiery turn with the spicy tuna roll, stuffed with plump chunks of fish blended with kiaware (sprouts), cucumber and sesame seeds. The solid bits of fish are a nice change from the more common minced blend. And the everyday California roll gets spruced up "golden" style, the crab, cucumber and avocado nubbins topped with a cap of salty masago (tiny orange smelt eggs).
But it's the namesake Sapporo roll that really wins my heart. It's edible art, starting with a star-shaped centerpiece of yellow tail and salmon, a lining of real crab, tobiko (roe) and a skewering of crisp, fresh asparagus spear. A wrapping of rice, a final blanket of ivory-colored soy nori sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds, and the result is a marvelous mouthful. Sushi chef Young Park makes his mark with this one.
14344 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85254
Category: Bars and Clubs
Region: North Scottsdale
Hamachi carpaccio $9
Misoyaki black cod $10
Seared ahi with slaw $12
Chicken and calamari combo $23
Filet mignon, shrimp and lobster combo $60
480-607-1114. Hours: Lunch, daily, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight.
Sapporo's center ring is stocked with high-tech metal and glass tables ringed by comfortable booths. Here's where diners collect for Pacific Rim fare, crafted by chef Pacifico Mata. What Roy Yamaguchi (Roy's) introduced to the Valley in 1998, Mata has brought into the millennium. Seared ahi has become ubiquitous, but it's hard to dismiss the superior fish served here, expertly presented and paired with a slaw of Napa cabbage, bean sprouts, carrot and daikon, plus a gutsy ginger dressing. It could use less garlic crust on the fish; the bitter coat becomes overpowering after a few bites.
Black cod isn't a common fish in town, but the buttery, mild fish could easily become a crowd favorite with more exposure. Mata treats it gently, bathing slabs in velvety, mildly sweet miso-yaki over a bed of scallions, cabbage, bean sprouts, cucumber and carrot. Hamachi carpaccio is another creative plate, the fish whisper-thin and paired with sliced jalapeño in a puddle of musky peanut oil-soy-ginger-truffle sauce.
Double pan-fried noodles aren't the typical Chinese rubber bands, but competently cooked to an almost chewy, slightly crunchy edge. The fat noodles lounge in a soy-based sauce with tender stir-fried beef and vegetables. It's a friendly plate for diners who aren't ready to experiment with more extravagant dishes like hoisin-glazed barbecued quail with yuzu vinaigrette and microgreens.
Tom yum soup, on the other hand, is too gentle, even for placid palates. The whole point of the Thai soup is to startle with furious spice and lemongrass; Sapporo serves up the Campbell's version, a tepid broth stocked with Napa cabbage, chicken, shrimp, mushrooms, cilantro, bean sprouts and carrot.
The final experience of the trinity, teppanyaki, doesn't start well. A 6:30 p.m. our reservation finds us standing in the lobby, waiting for our table to be "prepared." Interesting, since a teppanyaki table needs no preparation -- the setup is simply a centerpiece grill lined with a rim on which to rest plates, a communal spot for up to eight guests.
After our request at 6:45, we're sitting by our lonesome at the grill table, waiting for the remaining six diners to be seated (Hey, if we've been admonished to be on time, what's so special about this other party?). It's almost 7 before everyone's ready, this merry band of strangers who kept us from feeding.
After that, things flow smoothly. Appetizers arrive, bringing the usual suspects with a fine consommé, a house salad with ginger dressing and fried shrimp. Soon, a chef pops up to slice, dice and sizzle our selections.
The show is Benihana but better, clichéd comedy but not Up With People goofy. Knives flash, forks glitter and the chef tosses out our choices of excellent, flash-seared chunks of filet mignon, New York strip, lobster, calamari, chicken, shrimp or scallops. Sides of teppan vegetables and fried rice round out the meal.
Sapporo is yet another cool gathering spot in the burgeoning north Scottsdale area. We've got plenty of those. The difference is that Sapporo cares as much about its food as it does its social scene.