From whatever vantage point, Sagami isn't much to look at. And yet... in the minds of many, this writer included, it is home to the very best Japanese cuisine the Garden State has to offer.
Although most diners have undoubtedly been forewarned with regard to the restaurant's somewhat less than enviable location, its highly-touted reputation notwithstanding, your initial encounter is still likely to be something of a shocker. Bustling Route 130 would hardly qualify as one of New Jersey's more scenic highways; the surrounding area is decidedly tacky; and, as an added attraction, from the eatery's parking lot, you are afforded a bird's-eye view of the High Speed Line as it rumbles along to and from the City of Brotherly Love.
The exterior of the building is completely nondescript, and the low-ceilinged interior is a dimly lit affair furnished with dark, well-worn wooden booths and tables adorned with a single white paper napkin, fork, and set of chopsticks... The word "elegant" does NOT come to mind. The side dining room is infinitely brighter but also more utilitarian. No, you're better off in the dark or at the diminutive sushi bar that occupies the front of the house. Here the spotlight is on sushi chef Shigeru Fukuyoshi and his minions as they weave their magic culinary spell (cooked items, it should be noted, emerge from a separate kitchen at the rear of the establishment).
If you consider yourself a novice with regard to Japanese cuisine, not to worry; the charming kimono-clad waitresses are not only efficient but also extremely helpful in deciphering menu intricacies. Just be advised: This place fills up fast and, given its acoustical limitations, is quite noisy and frenetic; in addition, various and sundry progeny are very much in evidence. In other words, should you be in search of an intimate evening at table, you would do well to seek a change of venue.
That being said, however, once the food puts in an appearance, environmental considerations become completely inconsequential. Cuisine is all... and it is pristine of countenance, lovingly prepared, and beautifully presented.
As I noted in a previous review, Japanese appetizers are traditionally smaller than their American counterparts, so I would strongly suggest that you order a number of preludes and share and share alike. The vegetable tempura ($5.00) -- carrots, onions, zucchini, peppers, and sweet potatoes embraced in an ethereal deep-fried batter -- is the most delightful rendition of this dish that I have encountered anywhere. For those -- like me -- who can't get enough of a good thing, this highly recommended starter is also available as an entrée ($12.00).
Among the other options, the steamed and chilled asparagus spears are perfectly firm to the bite and served with an exotic sesame sauce ($5.00). Also not to be missed is the fried eggplant topped with an incredibly addictive chicken bean paste ($6.00). The red, white, and green seaweed salad ($7.00) exhibits wonderfully subtle nuances; while its sibling, the cooked black seaweed ($3.00), is alive with the primeval flavors of the murky depths.
Sushi, of course, is the name of the game here and -- to put the matter as straightforwardly as possible -- it is simply not to be missed. In deference to American appetites, the restaurant's presentations also include entrée portions; although, I much prefer to enjoy this delicacy in more traditional Japanese style, as a tasty prelude to the meal rather than as the meal itself.
If you are a true connoisseur of this culinary art form, you will probably elect to order your sushi by the piece, either as nigirizushi (sliced raw fish pressed over a pad of rice) or makizushi (rolls of raw fish and rice wrapped in seaweed and cut into bite-size rounds). This is a more expensive proposition than the various combinations, but it also allows you to indulge your personal predilections. The tuna ($3.00), fresh marinated salmon ($2.50), sea scallop ($3.00), striped bass ($2.50), and flounder ($2.50) are quite mild and tender. But those with more adventurous palates may wish to sample the giant clam ($3.50), sea eel ($3.00), mackerel ($2.50), or sea urchin ($3.50).
Sushi is also available by the roll. The futomaki ($12.00) is a large roll filled with pressed cod, egg, vegetables and rice. The kappamaki ($4.00), named after a mythological Japanese water goblin, is filled with cucumber, and the California roll ($5.00), a strictly American concoction that has since made its way back to Japan, features cooked king crab and avocado.
Entrées may be ordered as a full dinner (festooned with soup, salad, side dish, rice, and dessert) or à la carte, which is infinitely preferable as well as four dollars cheaper. The sukiyaki ($20.00/$16.00) -- thinly sliced beef and vegetables swimming in a savory broth -- is gargantuan and, after you've had your fill of appetizers, undoubtedly most suitable for sharing. In Japan, this dish is usually prepared by diners, who dip individual ingredients into the simmering broth; but here at Sagami, as at most Japanese restaurants in America, it emerges from the kitchen ready for immediate consumption.
The yosenable ($22.00/$18.00), a Japanese take on the bouillabaisse theme, is also quite excellent... as is the perfectly steamed Norwegian salmon ($18.00/$14.00). Traditional teriyaki, both steak ($19.00/$15.00) and chicken ($17.00/$13.00), are also available.
Japanese meals may be concluded in a variety of ways; but the most pleasing to the Western palate would undoubtedly be with fresh fruit. At Sagami, you are treated to a section of luscious and juicy pineapple ($2.50). There are also a variety of ice creams ($2.50) -- including red bean and green tea -- all standard issue, all made off campus.
No liquor license here, but the restaurant will supply a winged corkscrew, ice bucket for white wine, and glass tumblers (not wineglasses) -- you do the opening honors. An Alsatian Riesling always makes a most hospitable marriage with Japanese cuisine and, as luck would have it, some sterling representatives of the genre are available at the Moore Brothers Wine Company, just up the road in Pennsauken.
Sagami may not be the fanciest eatery you've ever laid eyes on... or the trendiest. But the impeccable quality of its food more than compensates for any ambient or acoustical imperfections. For the very best in Japanese cuisine at decidedly moderate prices, this Collingswood gem is hard to beat.
Hours: Lunch: Tues - Fri, 12:00 noon - 2:00 p.m.; Dinner: Tues - Thurs, 5:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri, 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; Sat & Sun, 5:00 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.; CLOSED MONDAY
Credit Cards: All major
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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