A Wash West recycle lost an “o” but earned an “OMG.”
I’ve walked by 1210 Walnut Street countless times and not once noticed Aoi, one in a long line of anonymous Center City sushi spots. Then in February, Tom Lau took over, renovated and named it Aki. Suddenly, people started noticing.
Hong Kong-born Lau, who worked at Balthazar and Odeon in Manhattan and opened four Asian restaurants in Knoxville, Tenn., used tons of red suede, mosaic tile, cherry hardwood and glinting stacked stone for the transformation. The investment is evident, from the stylish waterfall faucet in the bathroom to the actual waterfall in the lounge.
At the sake bar, Japanese rice wine is served in voluptuous sake glasses tinted a fashionable shade of cobalt. At the sushi bar, Executive Chef Ben Wanatabe’s nigiri ninjas wield sharp knives in sharp chef’s whites with plum-colored cuffs and collars.
What’s refreshing is that for all Aki’s trimmings, you rarely get the feeling you’re footing the bill for its interior decorator. Drinks boast steep discounts, and appetizers—like the meaty, intensely crabby softshell tempura and thin-skinned, golden-seared gyoza filled with gingery pork, napa cabbage, celery and scallion—are half-price during happy hour. In the sake lounge you’ll find a table filled with bottles of wine for only $18 each.
Also on the drinking front, Aki stocks a small but well-edited selection of plum wines and sakes bearing soubriquets like Devil’s Mask, Spring Deer and Moon After the Rain. It takes a real man to order the Princess of Love, a lightly effervescent, rose-tinted daiginjo redolent of red berries and tropical fruit. At least that’s what I kept telling myself as I sipped the fizzy pink potion.
Despite Aki’s unconventional looks, the restaurant does adhere to some traditional conceits. Forgettable miso soup or salad overdressed with hazmat- orange ginger goop precede the entrees, and desserts are same old, same old: green tea ice cream, fried bananas and outsourced (albeit delicious) strawberry, mango and red bean mochi.
Whole fried fish is another usual suspect of the American Japanese restaurant, and though at Aki the accompanying pool of sweet-and-sour pineapple-mango chile ectoplasm lacked distinction, the star of the dish had it to spare. What had to be a two-pound red snapper stared me down, all beady eyes and jaws unhinged, to reveal rows of carnivorous fangs. Nemo, it appeared, did not go down without a fight.
Scored on the sides, floured and deep-fried, the snapper bore a crackly golden crust that yielded crisp, shimmery skin and moist, snow-white meat beneath. In its thickest parts, some of the flesh was still raw and cool, but this being a sushi spot, it wasn’t the end of the world. There were plenty of other parts to concentrate on, like the cheeks and the collar, home to intensely juicy and flavorful “dark meat.”
But presumably, you’ll be coming to Aki for sushi. And maybe you’ll be coming for the $24.95 all-you-can-eat. It’s a pretty good deal—if you’re John Goodman. If not, order à la carte and you’ll save money, particularly since the premium items like the sweet scallops and foie gras-esque uni (really, some of the best I’ve ever had) come with a surcharge of $1.50 per piece. Aki’s nigiri gestapo have imposed some other strict rules for the all-you-can-eat option: 1) No splitting. 2) No doggy bags. 3) No leaving any leftovers (not even the rice or seaweed, the menu points out) or you’ll be charged for them. I understand the first two caveats, but the third gave me undue ordering agita.
Though Aki should stock some more exotic species, pristine, expertly sliced basics like tuna, striper and salmon draped over well-seasoned sticky rice satisfied just fine. The salmon particularly rocked, melting on the tongue like pats of butter. Aki serves only wild salmon (Norwegian for sushi, Pacific for the grilled entree), and it’s evident in the fish’s color: a deep, evenly marbled sunset orange, not the artificial Slice shade their nutrient-deficient farmed Atlantic cousins are dyed.
With the appetizers, I hit my sushi ceiling relatively quickly, so should you go Aki’s all-you-can-eat route, don’t order anything else and you’ll come away having gotten a deal. Just be sure to savor the atmosphere. It’s free. ■
1210 Walnut St. 215.985.1838. akiphilly.com
Hours: Mon.-Thurs., 11:30am-10:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 11:30am-midnight; Sun., noon-10:30pm.
Atmosphere: Zen-sexy with lots of red and black, stylish fixtures and expensive finishes.
Service: A smiley barrage of helpfulness.
Food: More distinctive than most sushi spots.
Dinner with Luke Palladino