When I first encountered Satomi Smith’s cooking in the wilds of Grand Island, I was an instant fan. Her wide-ranging Japanese menu included soups and stews that delivered such depth and homey satisfaction I imagined they would make any Japanese grandmother proud. In fact, her creations dominated Buffalo Soup Fest awards in January. ¶ Smith and her husband, Joshua, moved to the big city and opened their Elmwood Avenue place Jan. 28. In the heart of Buffalo’s most competitive restaurant district, Sato offers a deep menu of Japanese classics and Japanese-inflected dishes. Besides abundant seafood and meat-centered dishes, there’s also a strong streak of vegetable and vegan options, which is unusual. ¶ The star attraction might be Smith’s ramen, traditional Japanese noodle soup. Unfortunately, it was missing the night we visited, three weeks after Sato opened. Despite my disappointment, I found other praiseworthy dishes.
The former Organic 3 Café space starts with a bar backlit with blue and a flickering gas fireplace. There are 32 kinds of sake, including seasonal, unfiltered and sparkling choices, plus versions flavored with plum wine or yuzu, the Japanese citrus.
We were led up the stairs to a second-floor dining room and offered menus. I was looking for some vitamins, so the kimchi sampler ($8) and tsukemono, Japanese pickles ($7.50) were obvious. The shiitake mushroom sauté ($7.50) sounded good, too. We also asked for a winter garden salad ($7), featuring beets.
Kara age chicken ($9), buta no kakuni, or braised pork belly ($10) and korokke, potato and beef croquettes ($8) were our other appetizers.
From the other side of the single-page daily menu, we ordered tenderloin steak ($34), and chirashi zushi ($20), which is a big bowl of rice topped with raw fish and other sushi features.
The macadamia-crusted red snapper ($21) called to Cat.
Smith’s ramen, long-simmered broth with fresh noodles and toppings comes in regular, spicy miso and vegan vegetarian versions ($14, $12 on the late-night menus). Some extremely picky ramen eaters have raved about it, but the server apologized for being out.
He suggested tsukemen ramen ($12), noodles topped with pork, egg and vegetables, but no soup. Instead there’s a side of concentrated broth, for dipping.
The kimchi sampler was a spicy blast of crunchy pickle made from napa cabbage, shredded daikon radish and baby bok choy. They were fresher than most Korean kimchi, without fermented flavors.
The tsukemono were chunks of daikon, carrots, sliced cucumber and eggplant. Turns out pickled eggplant is pleasantly chewy, bitterness tamed by the brine. The rest were crunchy and simple.
The winter garden salad had more shredded daikon, and the yuzu dressing was lip-smacking good. We couldn’t find the beets, though.
Shiitakes sautéed in soy butter were a sensation, and the table’s favorite dish. The mushroom caps had browned at the edges, emphasizing their meatiness, and arrived still aromatic from the pan. A simple, skilled, satisfying dish.
The croquettes were three expertly fried spheres of a mashed potato and ground beef mixture, with a core of melted Gruyère cheese. It was indulgent, but I like mashed potatoes.
The chicken was four hunks of batter-fried boneless bird. It wasn’t crispy like Southern fried chicken, but was unusually juicy.
Our pork belly dish wasn’t as thrilling, soft pork that seemed underflavored by comparison.
The server commiserated that our table couldn’t hold our plates, then left it to us to devise a solution. I started stacking empties on a neighboring table. He and a teammate arrived with entrees before clearing our appetizer plates.
Cat was thrilled by her macadamia-crusted snapper, purple rice crowned by two pieces of fish with a toasty coating that adhered well, with the fish still moist inside. The plate was adorned with creamy garlic-scallion puree, pomegranate seeds and more toasted macadamias.
Kevin’s steak was quite satisfying, cooked accurately and bolstered with red wine reduction, sautéed shiitakes and miso mashed potatoes. It was a solidly American dish with a Japanese accent.
Liz wasn’t thrilled with her sushi bowl. The raw salmon and fish eggs were fine, and the raw tuna was OK, but the shrimp were chewy and the tamago, Japanese omelette, was blandly disappointing.
My tsukemen featured spaghetti-gauge noodles, half a soft-boiled egg and slices of tender pork belly. I tried to dip noodles and eat without making a mess, and failed.
Then I poured the sauce into the bowl. It had a delicious, distinct chicken flavor, like crispy skin tidbits from a perfectly roasted bird. Enjoyable, but not a replacement.
For dessert, we ordered strawberry mochi ice cream ($4.50), blood orange sorbet ($4) and coconut honey rice pudding ($5).
Mochi is ice cream encapsulated in a layer of chewy pounded rice. They’re tasty and fun once you get over the alien egg imagery. The sorbet smacked of sweet citrus with a welcome note of grapefruit bitterness, and our spoons competed for the last drops.
The pudding was warm and comforting, topped with toasted almonds. One of the best vegan desserts I’ve had, and a fitting reminder that soup is just one way to enjoy Sato.
Sato: 7 plates (Out of 10)
Despite missing most raved-about dish, broad Japanese menu offers satisfaction.
WHERE: 739 Elmwood Ave. (931-9146, www.satobuffalo.com).
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday; closed Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Starters and salads, $5-$16; small plates, $6-$17; entrees, $14-$32.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: One counter seat downstairs.