Expanding the palate

A chef with a love for sushi shares
his exotic fare with mid-Missouri diners
Wednesday, December 17, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:52 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Rob Chen, co-owner of Sake Japanese Bistro, has an unusual theory about food: “Food is like paint, and the plate is the canvas,” he said. “As long as you know what combination of colors to use, everything should turn out great.”

This theory drove Chen to open Sake, a Japanese restaurant with a menu based on recipes that are a result of Chen’s experience and knowledge of ingredients and flavors.

“I wanted to make the menu diverse,” he said. “My hobby is food; that’s why I opened up a restaurant.”

To reflect the diversity of Sake and to help customers enjoy their dining experience, Chen said he decorated his restaurant as “a combination of East and West, where people come to enjoy food, music and the company of friends.”

Chen creates sushi masterpieces with the help of sushi chef Jimmy Lien. James Han, Chen’s partner and childhood friend, also serves as chef, creating “wonderful appetizers and dinner dishes,” Chen said. “He makes everything that is not sushi.”

“I train everybody here,” Chen said. “That guarantees consistency and continuity.”

Chen learned the art of sushi-making at an apprenticeship during college in Salt Lake City.

“I did it all the way through college, but after graduating, I got a job in medical sales,” Chen said. “I had a passion for cooking, so I went back to it. I have now been working with sushi for about 13 years.”

Chen was born in Taiwan and raised in Salt Lake City. He moved to Columbia in September 2002 and opened Sake at the beginning of December that same year.

Chen picked Columbia for his restaurant because, “Columbia had a great opportunity for a new Japanese restaurant with a twist,” Chen said. “I thought that citizens of Columbia were ready for something new, interesting and diverse.

“Columbia residents and businesses are so supportive to local restaurants. I really wanted to be a part of it and I was lucky to find a place.”

Chen not only creates sushi masterpieces in front of customers, he also advises sushi newcomers on what to try. “I love teaching new customers about sushi,” Chen said.

Rebecca and Boyd Talbert of Jefferson City were grateful recipients of Chen’s advice. He had the couple try green tea miso soup, which is a traditional soybean broth with tofu and wakame.

Before trying the sushi, the Talberts prepared a mixture of wasabi and soy sauce. Chen warned them to be careful with how much wasabi they use since it is “Japanese horseradish. It has a sweet, spicy flavor to it.”

Chen gave each of them a plate of pickled ginger and radish, which are used to clean the palate between different types of fish.

When giving advice about eating sushi, Chen said, “Experiment. Everyone has a different way to eat sushi. I love sushi; I think it is one of the best cuisines and one of the most healthy cuisines.”

Chen suggested the couple first try tuna and salmon sushi, which, he explained, “are staples of sushi.” Next, they tried shrimp and spicy seared tuna sushi. Chen also offered them a California roll, made from avocado, cucumbers and crab. Then came octopus and cooked eel. The couple ended with Sake’s specialty, the Tiger Roll, made with mussels, crab, scallops and shrimp and then tempura fried.

Tempura frying is a style of Japanese frying that uses wheat flour. Chen said, “It is very complicated. It makes the food nice and crispy, but not greasy.”

Along with the Tiger Roll, The Big O, which contains cream cheese, crab and avocado, is also very popular at Sake.

Before opening Sake, Chen tested 15 seafood vendors and chose three to be his suppliers of seafood and Japanese goods. “This reflects the quality of our seafood,” he said. Two of the vendors are from Chicago and one is from St. Louis. Sake gets shipments of seafood on Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Our meat comes from local companies,” Chen said.

Along with an assortment of sushi, Sake also has a varied drink menu. “We have the largest sake collection in Missouri,” Chen said. Sake, made from fermented rice, is similar to wine in that “each different kind of sake has a distinct and different flavor,” he said.

Chen chose to name his restaurant Sake because, he said, “it is one of my favorite drinks.”

Sake also features 27 sake martinis, which Chen developed. “Sake has slowly gained recognition as a drink and has built a reputation, and I think it will continue to become even more popular,” Chen said. “I don’t think it has reached its peak yet.”

The lunch menu includes rice, soup, salads, fruit, vegetables and grilled meat, such as chicken, steak or fish.

“For dinner we offer delicacies,” Chen said. “We have 15 appetizers from crab cakes to shrimp or vegetable tempura. We also have 17 entrees including duck, steak and chicken teriyaki.”

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights Sake features live jazz until 10 p.m. and has a deejay on Wednesdays and Saturdays starting at 10 p.m. On these nights, the bar at Sake stays open until 1:30 a.m.

Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner is served from 5 to 10 p.m. every day. Sake is closed on Sunday.

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