The wilds of northern Grand Island are not where I expected to find a Japanese restaurant. A garden center, maybe. So when we walked into Serene Gardens and started browsing the garden statuary before sitting down at our table, it seemed almost normal.
Satomi Smith, a Japanese woman, runs a kitchen turning out home-style Japanese food. Josh Smith, her husband, runs the garden center with his brother Matt. Dinner is served Friday and Saturday only, but most of the menu is served for lunch.
Winter doesn’t offer many clues about whether the Smiths are good at gardening, but it’s a fine time to see if Satomi’s work will warm you up. As it happens, Serene Gardens was awarded the Best Kept Secret title at the 2013 Buffalo Soupfest. Having tried two of Satomi’s soups in my most recent visit, I am sorry that geography conspires to keep people away from her tables.
Both the chicken pumpkin and Japanese pork stew ($5) were outstanding, the former a lightly creamy, earthy broth with pieces of peppery chicken and a drizzle of spiced cream. The latter, with its hunks of tender pork in a soy broth, plus chopped carrots and potatoes, was especially praised by one guest, a real meat-and-potatoes guy.
The seriously Japanese menu starts with tea service ($2.50), a variety of loose teas like green, lemon ginger and pear that we found fragrant and flavorful. It arrives steeping, with a timer that marks recommended brewing time.
The small plates are a strong suit here. Korokke ($5) were four plum-sized balls of mashed potato and ground beef, deep-fried in a crispy panko crust. They needed the sweet soy dipping sauce for flavor but were surprisingly light, fluffy even. Karaage, or Japanese chicken nuggets, pieces of deep-fried marinated chicken thigh ($8), were tasty but soft, not crunchy.
Gyoza, fried Japanese dumplings ($5 for 6), sported a pork and scallion filling that also showed up in the stuffed mushrooms ($6 for 6). Good gyoza, we thought, but the mushroom caps, cooked from raw, seemed underdone. Chashu ($5) were cool slices of pork loin braised in soy sauce, silky and moist.
On to noodle soup. The traditional soup broth with soba and vegetables ($6) was remarkable mainly for its dark, soothing, almost smoky broth, flavored with bonito and soy. The vegetables, including mushrooms and broccoli, were plentiful, and the noodles were decent.
Plates include Japanese-style curry, which will probably remind you of an Indian curry, except with carrots, potatoes, onions and apples. It’s ladled over rice and topped with a fried pork chop in the Katsu Curry ($11).
The curry was assertively seasoned, especially when compared to Japanese packet curries, and delicious, with firm, not mushy vegetables. The pork chop was chewy, and I wished it had been pounded out before frying.
Chicken teriyaki ($9) was almost worth the drive by itself. A generous amount of chicken thigh pieces had been sautéed and imbued with a teriyaki sauce of outstanding depth and inky intensity. The sticky, gingery soy caramel effect turned the dish into a bridge between dinner and dessert.
The yakisoba fried ramen noodles with shrimp ($12) reminded me of a sweeter, less oily version of Chinese takeout lo mein, with lots of broccoli and plump crustaceans.
All these dishes are on the lunch menu, available all week. Here’s what we tried from Friday and Saturday offerings.
The Japanese fish fry ($12) was a crispy, panko-crumb-coated fillet, light enough to make you doubt beer batter’s supremacy. It was served with tangy mayo-less Asian slaw, fried rice and an irresistible homemade tartar sauce containing diced egg, Dijon mustard, pickle and more.
I ordered a dinner special of surf and turf with ponzu (citrus soy) sauce ($22). A slice of seared ribeye arrived with four shrimp and a scoop of fried rice, napped with what looked like brown homemade applesauce. It was tangy from citrus and had body, from caramelized onions perhaps, but the look and texture had my co-diners pause. I ate it anyway, wishing the steak was medium-rare but otherwise enjoying its flavors.
Dessert, available all day, was crepes ($4) or mochi ($4), balls of green tea or flavored ice cream inside a chewy capsule of beaten glutinous rice. They were sweet and weird, and I would have eaten more.
Serene Gardens is worth a visit for its soup and teriyaki chicken alone. If you visit with someone vulnerable to the charms of Japanese statuary, you might end up lugging a stone owl to the car afterward. It’s a small price to pay.
Serene Gardens: 7 plates (Out of 10)
Japanese cuisine has taken root with broad menu in garden center.
WHERE: 2800 Grand Island Blvd., Grand Island (773-5323, www.serene-gardens.com)
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday and closed Monday.
PRICE RANGE: Salads, $3-$15; appetizers, soups and small plates, $5-$15; dinners, $12-$22.
PARKING: In the lot.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.