I have been a fan of Scott Kim since he opened Matsu, his Chagrin Boulevard restaurant, eight years ago. The Korean-born chef earned my admiration for his mastery of Japanese cuisine, taken up as an alternative to his own country’s cooking, Kim once told me, because he didn’t want to be in culinary competition with his mother. So I was predisposed to like what he’s doing at his new place, SASA on Shaker Square. (Originally opened as SASAMatsu, the name has recently been shortened for clarity.)
But I’m a professional — nobody gets a free ride. I go, taste,thenevaluate. After multiple meals at what Kim and his wife and partner, Brenda, call an Asian bistro, I’ve gone from fan to full-fledged devotee.
Kim’s menu reveals the full range of his skill and creativity. The food is inventive, attractive, often surprising, and delicately flavorful. The equally appealing dining room is awash in black, white and red, with stainless steel accents. The walls are free of decoration and the understated, contemporary ambience is a good backdrop for his culinary concepts.
Capitalizing on the nosh-and-nibble trend, the restaurant is anizakaya, the Japanese version of a tapas bar. The small, medium and SASA special plates, which include dumplings, noodles and skewered meats, offer a way to snack, sample and share your way to happiness and satisfaction. The food is a good match for the sipping sakes (there are almost 45 available), a wheat beer infused with green tea that’s made for the restaurant by Willoughby Brewing Co. and signature cocktails such as the lychee cosmo and Tokyo sangria.
One of my evening grazes ranged from soup to nuts — literally — in eight steps.
Miso broth was the base for Asari clam and toasted corn soup ($8), but in this preparation it took a back seat; the excellent chowder got a slightly nutty flavor from a drizzle of sesame oil. Sunomono salad ($7), a combination of daikon radish threads, a fan of cucumbers, a wedge of faux crab and chilled shrimp, all coated in a rice wine and lemon vinaigrette, was simultaneously sweet, tart, juicy and very refreshing. The eye-catching daikon wrap ($9) was a clever expression of finger food. Carrots, greens, shiitake mushrooms and bits of seafood and egg came gift-wrapped in paper-thin slices of marinated white radish. A bite delivered a buffet’s worth of textures and tastes.
Exceptionally fresh, the sashimi-style whitefishusuzukuri duo ($14) was a study in contrasts: soy and orange were front and center in a ponzu sauce, while the cilantro-laced chivecha was all about lemon and lime, echoing a Peruvian ceviche.
We came hungry, and the carefully calibrated portions left room for more. So on to the fries($6), a great reinvention of the burger sidekick when spiked withshichimi pepper, a spice mix, and sesame-roasted, sun-dried seaweed flakes, and served with an intriguing dip reminiscent of steak sauce. With a bit of coaxing, Kim revealed the ingredients: applesauce, ketchup, Worcestershire and cloves.
Next up were Kobe meatballs ($12). The soyyuzu glaze gave them a gleaming, lacquered look and nicely balanced the richness of the übermarbled beef.
For a change of pace, try the five-mushroom tofu ($14). Even those who are not fans of soybean curd will find this preparation appealing: It’s got a crisp crust, and the tofu takes on the woodsy essence of shiitake, lion’s mane and other wild fungi.
We finally had to throw in our chopsticks and finish with a shared dessert, a white chocolate mousse ($6) unlike anything I’ve had before, thanks to the addition of red bean puree served with a salty pistachio brittle — kind of a Japanese version of the hot fudge sundae. Kim also makes his own ice creams, which are silky smooth but not overly buttery. The trio ($7) features scoops of spiced chai, tangy yuzu and a zesty ginger, each one better than the next.
Like many Japanese restaurants, the art of sushi is practiced here. The fire roll ($16) lives up to its name, arriving —with all the excitement of a circus act —in a flaming foil package. The trick is not all flash. The brief brush with heat gives the teriyaki sauce a smoky quality that seasons the filling of lobster, crab, Chinese broccoli andmasago (bright orange fish roe). It went well with pickles and peppers ($7), a lovely still life in shades of green, yellow, orange and pink. The mix included hot littleshitito peppers tempura-battered and fried, sour-saltyyamagobo (burdock),takuwan (radish),ajicuri(cucumber) and plum.
Together, the two dishes were just the right accompaniment for my Murai sake tasting ($8 for three 2-ounce pours): one dry and crisp, the next aromatic and fruity, and the third creamy and smooth.
There are a handful of full-size entrees and I especially enjoyed a miso-marinated black cod ($24) with ayuzu butter that lent a citrus note andtakikomi rice, a variation on risotto. Five-mushroom chicken ($14), though listed as a medium-size dish, was big enough to qualify as a main course, and a rich, dark plum-wine demiglace plus a sprinkling of shiitaki crisps gave the preparation character.
It’s easy to eat, drink and spend a fair amount here, but it’s equally easy to do the opposite. Taking advantage of its location next door to Shaker Cinemas, the restaurant offers dinner and movie specials every Monday. Other days have their attractions, too: Wednesday brings premium sakes at reduced prices and Thursday features live music. Seasonal outdoor seating gives the place destination credentials for summer evenings.
If you don’t know Kim’s food and are not already a groupie, I’m guessing you will be after a visit to SASA. Welcome to the club. Which reminds me — there actually is a club. Get a card at the restaurant, amass points for eating there and earn delicious rewards. SASA, 13120 Shaker Square, Cleveland, (216) 767-1111, Mon-Thu 5 - 11 p.m., Fri & Sat 5 p.m. - midnight, Sun 5 - 10 p.m.; sasamatsu.com