food & drink

Food Dude

By Jim Duncan


Sakari and 21 — sushi fits in

Des Moines’ two newest sushi bars are both the first-ever Japanese cafés in their neighborhoods. Their differences are as distinctive as wasabi and soy sauce.

Dogtown is not a typical free enterprise zone. Drake University owns enough of its real estate to influence its commercial composition. Submarine and coffee shops abound, but there are far fewer bars and beauty parlors than one would expect from its demographics. From my experiences at 21, sushi looks like a back door to the tavern market. On my first visit, fish was less than fresh. On my return, it was much better but very difficult to order. Five different waiters helped me, and none seemed to be aware of what the last one might have said. Nigiri included large portions of wasabi hidden under fish. Some dishes were not as described, and others came without key ingredients. After bringing that to the attention of one waiter, a complimentary beer was set in front of me. After I declined, it was grabbed and chugged in a single gulp by a customer. Others were slamming shots and smoking in the open doorway. As I was leaving, someone handed me a bag with the missing parts of my order — good tempura. I returned for lunch, but the place was not open as scheduled. I wondered why, briefly.

Sushi fits on Ingersoll more conventionally. That neighborhood takes pride in its multicultural make up and foodie credentials. Most of its restaurants are heirlooms with around half a century of history — Noah’s, Jesse’s Embers, Kwong Tung, Ted’s, El Patio, Dahl’s and Bauder’s. Some of its taverns are even older. Newcomers like Star Bar and Bistro Montage are among the best restaurants in all Iowa. Until this September, Japanese cuisine was the hippest style of food never to be represented there.

Satari Japanese Restaurant is the latest venture of Nick Sisomphane, who is one of Iowa’s brightest young restaurateurs, reluctantly. After growing up in restaurant family in the restaurant town of Fairfield, Sisomphane determined to get into “any business except restaurants.” Yet after graduating from the University of Iowa in business management, he found himself enrolling in Venice, Calif., Sushi Institute. After a three-year stint as Head Itamae at Three Samurai in Iowa City, he opened Kaji Grill in Cedar Rapids. After selling his share of that place, he opened Sushi Kicchin in the Old Capitol Mall in Iowa City. All three places are considered “wildly successful.”

Sisomphane and partners Jason Simpson (Sahar’s) and Sang Cam, have high hopes for Sakari. Their sushi menu is currently split between traditional and American styles, with the latter adding fats like mayonnaise and cream cheese. Things will change. Bento boxes have been ordered, and surprisingly good business has encouraged test marketing off-the-menu specials — hamachi kama (yellowfin cheeks) were superb on a pair of visits.

“The trucks that deliver fresh fish don’t come to Des Moines every day, and all sushi places pretty much buy from the same suppliers. The key is fish maintenance. I work to keep raw fish fresh for two days, and then it gets cooked,” Sisomphane explained.

From the kitchen, tuna tataki ($8.50), octopus salad ($5) and grilled salmon dinners ($9) delivered great value. Four soups had excellent stocks — seafood in an udon, beef bones in pho and in a “clear,” and white soy paste in miso. Of 37 sushi rolls, nine were vegetarian. Nigiri ($2 a piece) included red and white tuna, eel, snapper and four kinds of roe — no belly or uni yet. Sisomphane promised both as the customer base begins asking for them. A full bar menu is offered unobtrusively.


Bottom line — Both these places complement their neighborhoods, each in their own fashion.


Side Dishes
Star chef Scott Stroud (Dos Rios) returned to town after opening places in Florida and Okoboji. He’s working at Alba and Phat Chefs and is buying a house. CV


Hamachi kama at Sakari.


2311 University Ave., 369-7253
Monday through Saturday, Noon to 2 a.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. to close


Sakari Japanese Restaurant
2605 Ingersoll Ave., 288-3381
Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. with bar and appetizers available till 2 a.m.

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