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by Bob Barnett

The Flint Sushi War continues this week as Sagano Japanese Bistro and Steakhouse tries to out-perform its contender, Ichiban. In Sushi Wars: Part I, Ichiban came out swinging with an impressive performance that included delicious sushi appetizers and an entertaining hibachi grill dinner. The pleasant, customer-friendly crew at Ichiban complemented the relaxed atmosphere and high quality food. Was it enough, though, to defeat the reigning champion of Japanese cuisine?

To be fair and objective, I planned my visit to both restaurants on the same night of the week, and I dined at the hibachi grill, while ordering appetizers from the sushi bar. My visit to Ichiban took place on a Tuesday, and traffic in the restaurant was pretty slow. Last Tuesday at Sagano was a completely different story. They have ten hibachi grills, each seating ten people. Every table was full and we waited almost half an hour to be seated. On a Tuesday?

No problem!

Sagano has a beautiful bar and six or seven tables in the waiting area (a space that gets a lot of use), so my partner, Philip, and I ordered cocktails while we waited. We also decided to order our sushi appetizers, since we had plenty of time to enjoy them. Sagano’s full sushi menu, which can be found on their website at www.saganoflint.net/sagano-menu-sushi.php has everything from sashimi (pieces of fish) to nigiri (pieces of fish draped over cakes of rice) to thirty-six sushi rolls and twelve house specialty rolls.

The Sushi Chefs at Sagano are accomplished in their craft and come from all over the world. They have created such crowd pleasers as the Viagra Roll, which consists of spicy tuna inside, topped with red, black, and green caviar (apparently this caviar is an aphrodisiac); the Home Depot Roll, with tempura shrimp inside, salmon on top, and finished with red and green caviar, and topped with spicy sauce and eel sauce; or my favorite, the Stairway to heaven Roll, stuffed with scallops cream cheese and asparagus covered in crunchy flakes, and topped with white tuna and salmon. The specialty rolls are more expensive, but they’re big enough for at least two people to share.

On this night we decided to go off the menu for a dish that’s not widely advertised, but the chefs will make it if you ask: the Spicy Tuna Bowl. Each chef puts his own twist on it and Yoshi, our favorite sushi chef, made a fantastic creation. The dish is made of chunks of red tuna tossed in Jalapeño pepper slices, crab meat, hot chili sauce, scallions, and cucumber sticks. The dish is accompanied by shredded daikon (a white, Asian radish) and leafy Japanese herbs, then finished with a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds. Its presentation is breathtaking. Served in a deep white bowl, the colors are eye-popping and the combinations of flavors and textures makes you sit back and put your hand to your chest after every bite.

We knew we wanted white tune for our second appetizer—undeniably the finest sushi fish on Sagano’s menu, but we couldn’t decide how we wanted to order it. Instead of lingering in indecision, we gave the sushi chef carte blanche to make the decision for us. We were stunned to see his unique white tuna creation laid out before us. It was filled with avocado and caviar with white tuna draped over the top and covered in more caviar. The roll sat atop an avocado-jalapeño mayonnaise. The smooth, spicy flavor of the mayonnaise, mixed with the soft, mild texture of the tuna made it difficult not to devour this decadent creation in quick, successive bites. But we knew we had to save room for the main course.

One of the joys of eating at the hibachi grill is that you always meet fun and interesting people. Of course you can bring a party of up to ten, but you’ll have a good seat and a good experience with any number in your party. Philip and I had the pleasure of sharing a dinner table with seven member of the Garcia family. Two of them were celebrating their anniversary, which made the experience both social and lively. The talents of our well-trained chef added to an already festive evening.

Though insanely busy, the wait staff were all pleasant (an absolutely consistent part of the experience they offer), took the time to talk to each dinner guest, and made everyone at the table feel truly pampered. After bringing us each a bowl of Japanese Clear Soup (a thin broth with mushroom slices, shreds of scallion, and topped with crunchy rice), we were treated to a small salad with a mouth-watering peanut-sesame dressing. At this point, I was already certain I would need a To-Go box for my entrée.

The chefs at Sagano start dinner by using their cooking tools to create an impressive display of artistry and entertainment for their guests, but once they get down to business, they are laser-focused on preparing a first-class meal. Diners can choose anything from a vegetarian plate to a variety of combinations that include high quality steaks, seafood, shellfish, and chicken. Instead of choosing individual combination plates, Philip and I went for the Emperor’s Dinner for Two, which included filet mignon, scallops, shrimp, and lobster. The per/person price was about the same as if we’d ordered individually, and the presentation was exquisite. Since it was also served with fried noodles, fried rice, and grilled vegetables, To-Go boxes were eminent.

My favorite aspect of the hibachi grill experience is that the meal is prepared in stages. This works well on a couple of levels. First, your whole visit is taken up with eating. As you’re gobbling up the teriyaki fried noodles, you also get to watch your fried rice, vegetables, and meat being prepared before you. Second, as each piece of the meal is added to your plate, the textures and flavors begin to mingle, and by the time the last bit of food hits your plate, the juices and sauces are all intertwined, creating super flavors that are even more delicious than the sum of their parts. This analogy also characterizes the overall experience at Sagano. Each aspect of the dining experience is excellent, but put together they add up to one incredible experience. Was it enough, though, to outperform Ichiban and claim the crown as Best Japanese Bistro & Steakhouse in Flint?

And the Winner is…

Whenever I review a restaurant, I’m interested in the service, the ambiance, and the quality of the food. When all three aspects of my experience are good, the overall experience is fantastic. When they don’t, the whole experience is affected in a negative way. I’m surprised and happy to report that Ichiban and Sagano are both extremely good and receive high marks in all three areas. The determining factor, then, becomes How good was each restaurant in each area and how good was the overall experience? Here’s how it breaks down:

Service: We were greeted by friendly, caring staff members at both places. The managers, wait staff, and chefs kept us well engaged and made us the central part of the dining experience. Sagano gets the slight edge in this area because their staff is more disciplined and polished in their craft. The staff at Ichiban is great and with time will build the kind of repoire with its customers that Sagano currently enjoys.

Ambiance: Because there were so few people dining with us at Ichiban, the hibachi dining room felt almost cavernous. Once seated, I expected a much more intimate feel of the place to emerge, but the layout of the tables, the depth of the space, and the high ceilings make it difficult to create an intimate, inviting space. Sagano, on the other hand, has used its space and decorating skills to create an atmosphere that, even with 100 dinner guests, feels both intimate and festive.

Food: Finally, the reason we all go out to eat: to get good food. Ichiban and Sagano both delivered good, high quality food. The sushi was fresh, the selection of rolls was creative and beautifully presented, and the grill food was perfectly cooked. When I look at the overall quality of the food without comparison, Ichiban and Sagano both score high marks. Putting their food side by side, however, reveals a pretty big difference. While Ichiban’s food is of good quality and its presentation attractive, Sagano’s offerings are of superior quality. In fact, their food is every bit as good as what I’ve enjoyed in cities like Chicago, D.C., and San Francisco.

Overall, Sagano gets the nod in every category and claims the title as Best Japanese Bistro & Steakhouse in Flint. Don’t just take my word for it. Try them both and tell me what you think.



© Bob Barnett, 2010