Shiki Asian Bistro
321 Smithtown Bypass, Hauppauge
AMBIENCE: A quiet, dim sea of neutrals
SERVICE: Cheerful, and with a great sense of timing
ESSENTIALS: Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday, 1 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Ample parking; handicapped accessible; beer, wine and sake only.
Some restaurants seem to shed identities every year or so — especially the unassuming beige structure on Route 347 in Hauppauge next to Pace’s Steakhouse. Whereas Pace’s has held court since 1985, its neighbor has worn various faces in the past few years: A tapas place called Blend closed in 2015, replaced by a Mediterranean spot, Casa Mia. That business lasted less than a year, replaced this summer by telltale vinyl grand-opening triangles and a new sign: Shiki Asian Bistro.
Is Shiki finally a keeper? Certainly, it has a menu that has launched a thousand Asian-fusion restaurants: A starring role for sushi, sashimi and hand rolls, with a supporting cast of dishes that span thousands of miles of Asia, from the dumplings, noodles and fried rice of China to Thai soup, Korean-style short ribs, tempura and teriyaki — you get the picture. Diners who know exactly what they want to eat when they step into such a place, and find comfort in predictability, will probably feel soothed here — not just by the menu, but the dim, cool lights and sea of neutrals that owner Andy Xie has lent the dining rooms.
Shiki is not Xie’s first go-round with this concept, or even name; he ran two previous Shikis — one in Smithtown and another in East Hampton, both now closed. For Shiki 3.0, Xie did away with Casa Mia’s bar, turning it into a sushi bar (though beer, wine and sake are still served). The placid interior is minimalist, punctuated by decorations such as a boat model and some (neutral) leaf prints. During one visit, the only music playing was faint R&B wafting out of the kitchen. This sometimes lonesome vibe is partially offset by wonderful, warm servers who do things such as nudge you away from ordering too much food or whisk away plates as soon as they are empty.
Despite the raft of tried-and-true Asian dishes, the menu’s more playful territory yields the greatest satisfaction. For instance, a starter of sliced eggplant layered with snappy, butterflied shrimp, then slathered in a sticky miso sauce, is an unexpected treasure. So are delicate, plump oysters sautéed to a nut-brown sheen and served in ceramic spoons in melted butter laced, perhaps, with citrusy yuzu. A Black Pearl sushi roll is as intriguing to look at as it is to eat, pairing asparagus and steamed lobster with avocado, black tobiko, blackberries and eel-honey sauce.
Other dishes flirt with potential, but ultimately suffer overadornment. For instance, a luscious miso cod drowns under a wet blanket of sweetish white-miso sauce, when more of a light brush would do. An appetizer of marinated, cubed, Arctic char, tumbled with minced shallots, vibrates with freshness, but is delivered on a distracting pile of romaine. The scant meat in a duck salad hides beneath a forest of greenery, whereas a tuna-and-cucumber “martini” is clobbered by an overlarge pile of tobiko.
More consistent are soups, such as the cosseting nameko soup, a flavorful broth loaded with slivered mushrooms, wispy scallions, halved cherry tomatoes and tofu. Shiki’s miso soup tastes fresh, not tired, and a briny tom yum soup is dense with shrimp and kickin’ with chili-supplied heat.
The main events at Shiki, sushi and sashimi, cut to order by head sushi chef Jackie Chen, are pretty to look at; well-cut, generous hunks of sashimi or droopy cuts of sushi on rococo platters of twirly banana leaves, vermicelli and microgreens. Upon closer inspection, though, the graceful presentation and generous portions mask fish that can be uneven in quality: Sometimes glistening (salmon) but other times mealy, mushy or muted. Uni is ample, but crab is imitation. While mackerel was on the menu, Shiki was out of it on two visits.
Even still, sushi is the way to go here, because the cooked entrees we tried — such as marinated, well-grilled short ribs — were bland. Fortunately, though, Shiki has enough sating small plates that one can piece together a decent meal, as if the tapas concept lives on in different form.