Sake Cafe's dining area, once a Rite Aid, is dark and expansive. It entertains hard tables and floors, a usually empty balcony room and the Uptown hip. There's a separate bar serving cocktails to victims of the waiting list, where the bartender doesn't take water for an answer. Seated groups of collegiate types sing birthday greetings in pitches loosened by bottles of warm sake. The smell and sizzle of teriyaki hovers over the place like an arched orchid stem, and couples with the fresh breath of pickled ginger smooch nearly unnoticed in shadowy corner booths.
But all of this is at your back when you're seated before the row of clean-fingered chefs. Almost the length of a bowling alley, the amber sushi bar glistens under tippy chandelier mobiles. Inches above, a black granite ledge is just wide enough for ceramic pitchers of soy sauce you'll rarely tip. Chefs present their sushi wares under bulbs small as nightlights that freeze moments with the power of floodlights. Lazy drips of eel sauce suspend from plumes of lettuce like acrobats. Piles of daikon radish are rendered as translucent as angels' hair. Beads of orange, red and green caviars take on a psychedelic shimmer. Complimentary lagniappes of seared salmon and vinegary cucumber moons shine like pearls in shell-shaped dishes.
Since its opening, this Uptown relative of Metairie's Sake Cafe has been the talk for a unique menu of elaborate, cucumber-fat sushi rolls. Decorated with more garnishes than an ice cream sundae, one of these is enough for me. Meanwhile at the sushi bar, an answer to the magic words "what's fresh?" could keep your chopsticks occupied for hours. When in season, softshell crabs are tempura-fried and rolled whole into blankets of seaweed and rice; slices of fatty tuna are striped with white lines of belly blubber; clean-tasting salmon leaves behind a lard-rich lip gloss; sea-salty bites of tentacled octopus marinate in rice vinegar, sweet sake and soy; and sherbet-orange clams are killed with a few whacks on the cutting board, then served on wasabi-smudged rice balls.
Sushi bar greenhorns quickly overcome timidity when their soft-spoken orders for warm, salmon skin salads result instead in iceberg lettuce topped with sashimi (consistently pristine, the sashimi here accompanied a lackluster, "lemon-soy" dressing that could have passed for honey-mustard). If you don't know the lingo, request what your chef likes -- he'll ask for permission before initiating a clam vivisection. You could land an inside-out roll stuffed with avocado, Alaskan king crab and spicy mayo, then covered in flying fish roe. Or a syrup-soaked pocket of fried tofu (inari) packed with snow crab and drizzled with eel sauce.
Sushi bar regulars come with as many tastes and personalities as beer drinkers. You might have the jealous girlfriend to your left, who is "not a texture person" but who would much rather gag down the "warm peanut butter"-like sea urchin than let her date give you a bite. There could be a single dad down the bar, his son washing down crunchy rolls with a neon green soda pulled from a backpack. And next to them, a straight-backed couple that eschews sake for martinis and orders yellowfin tuna tartare molded into a heart.
Expect also to find the philosopher/drunk who holds his liquor just long enough to deliver an incredible ordering performance. He'll bypass the chlorinated osumashi and lukewarm miso soups, going straight for Kirin beer and pointing to the only whole, silvery mackerel in the glass fish case. He'll rightly keep the mackerel sashimi to himself, eating it with strips of dried seaweed and telling you it tastes like "really f--king raw fish." When he receives the mackerel's carcass, fried whole, he'll pass you the tail as he takes the head in one bite.
And before he stumbles out, he'll demonstrate the finest way to order a scallop. Taken gently from its shell, the biggest scallop you've ever seen still fasciculates with opaque electricity. Sliced into four pieces, the scallop is laid with thin rounds of lemon and fresh mint back onto its shell, which serves as both coffin and plate.
"This tastes like the Cajun sushi I grew up on as a bayou boy," your new friend will slur. To you, it probably tastes more like scallop with a live, metallic edge and the texture of a half-ripe plum. And over a mug of mossy green tea for dessert, he'll read your thoughts: "Once you try the sushi bar, you never look back."