WHERE: 2049 Van Vanken Ave., Schenectady
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
MORE INFO: 381-4881. Major credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible. Children’s portions available.
Mari’s, a Japanese cuisine restaurant that’s been around a long time, is a great place to retreat from the hectic pace of the workaday world. Tucked inconspicuously on bustling and culturally eclectic Van Vranken Avenue, it’s really an oasis of serenity.
Serene or not, on this particular evening I wanted Japanese food, but I didn’t feel like eating out. One of the nice things about Mari’s is that takeout is every bit as good as eating in the pleasant decor of the compact and efficient dining room or at the little sushi bar where co-owner Jiro Omiya presides with quiet dignity.
I ordered dinner for myself and my guest and carted it home for a relaxed meal. It turned out to be a great idea. (I have a large, square marble-topped coffee table that’s great for this kind of meal. I transfer everything from take-away cartons to dishes, lay out the various condiments and chopsticks, and light a candle. Then arrange cushions so we can sit on the floor.)
For appetizers, I chose some gyoza — pork-filled dumplings — for $5, and Nebayaki Udon soup ($9.50), which is broth chock full of wonderful udon noodles, along with bits of egg, scallions, tender chicken breast chunks, shrimp tempura and spinach.
The dumplings were fried to a golden brown crispness on the outside. The innards consisted of spiced, slightly sweet ground pork. There was a salty, soy-based sauce for dipping. They disappeared quickly.
The Nebayaki Udon soup was a delight, but then if it contains udon noodles I’m already sold. The broth was hot and flavorful and the chicken pieces succulent. The tempura shrimp was a bit of a disappointment because it had been overcooked. That’s not surprising because it had already been fried in tempura batter before it was dropped in the soup, so it actually was twice-cooked. A minor fault, but I think uncooked shrimp without batter, which simply dissolves in the soup anyhow, would be a better idea.
The soup portion was easily enough for two.
Our entrees were Pork Katsu ($11) and Beef Teriyaki ($15), which I laid out on serving dishes so we could each sample both.
Pork Katsu is one of my favorites, and I was pleased to find that Mari’s does it well. It is a pork cutlet that is dredged in flour, egg and panko bread crumbs and then fried to a golden crispness. It came with a delicious Tonkatsu sauce, which is a barbecue-style sauce made from apples and other ingredients. It was a perfect foil for the savory pork cutlets. (You get two generous-sized cutlets which come sliced and ready for dipping in the Tonkatsu).
The pork dish came with a simple salad of shredded cabbage and carrots with a lemon wedge to squeeze over them. It served as a great palate-cleanser between courses.
It also came with one of my favorites, a cup of the simple and complex Asian soup known as miso. Miso is simply fermented soy that is reconstituted as soup with hot water to which is added bits of spinach and small chunks of silky, white tofu for a delightful textural experience. It is complex in its flavor — a little salty, with subtle undertones from the fermented soy. (Miso soup is a staple in much of the world, often consumed for breakfast.)
Mari’s version of Beef Teriyaki is an 8-oz. New York strip steak. It is marinated in the teriyaki sauce and then grilled to your liking (medium rare, here), then served with more of the sauce and a big mound of sticky rice. It also came with a petit side of broccoli and carrots, cooked to a crisp doneness. The steak, which came sliced, was suitably pink on the inside and nicely grilled and slightly glossy (the “teri” in “teriyaki”) outside, with the distinctively sweet flavor of the teriyaki heightening its flavor.
Mari’s entrees all come with a choice of miso or salad.
Our total tab, including tax and tip, came to $48.74. Mari’s prices are generally moderate, though you can spend more. They offer a House Dinner for $25 consisting of miso soup, Sho sashimi or Sho sushi, shrimp tempura, a small appetizer, pickles, egg and rice and choice of beef, chicken, salmon teriyaki and seasonal dessert. You can also get Mari’s version of Surf and Turf — Beef Teriyaki with lobster tail for $25.
Sushi and sashimi dinners are offered and come with soup or salad. They range in price from $13 for the 18-piece Maki Special to $23 for the Sushi and Sashimi Combo.
Mari’s also offers an a la carte sushi and sashimi menu where you can find their popular “Henry” under the special rolls (4-8 pieces). The Henry includes eel, crab, and avocado and sells for $6.50. For $6 you can get two pieces of their Sweet Shrimp with Head and, for $4.50, the Flying Fish Roe.
There are interesting choices on the appetizer menu, like edamame (steamed soy beans) for $4.50, Shigi Yaki (broiled eggplant with sweert miso sauce), also $4.50.
First, thanks to all who have been sending me ideas for review destinations. I’m making a list and will get to as many of them as possible. Second, do visit our Food Forum blog. There’s a new blog every day with news, recipes and commentary of particular interest to foodies.