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Venue Review: Sabi Asian Bistro

Spotless beauty, spotty fare
Sabi Asian Bistro
By "Helen Schwab, Restaurant Writer"
The Charlotte Observer

130 Harbour Place Drive, Davidson

More info about restaurant

Sabi is so pretty.

And the Web site is popping: good graphics, good photos, good marketing prose.

Some of all that energy needs to be redirected, back into its kitchen. Because some of the food emerging is excellent, and some unfortunate.

Best first: A terrific maki from the sushi menu that employs two kinds of tuna, plus avocado and various colored roe; and some good, fresh, simple nigiri sushi. A well-done red curry – spicy hot, but not overpowering – gives you your choice of protein, including tofu.

Less glowing: Unpleasantly gummy tamago (egg nigiri sushi) and unagi (eel) that hadn't been crisped as it should. A version of flower chicken listed as “drenched in white wine sauce” that just about was. Lettuce wraps of tasteless filling piled onto small iceberg leaves.

Unacceptable: Salmon in a “Western Plate” preparation that we were warned would take 25 minutes, then arrived still frozen in the center, its ginger and horseradish crust spongy and wet. We sent it back. It returned drenched with a new sauce, still cold and obviously raw in the center.

Servers, dressed casually, work quickly, and are fairly adept at describing dishes. But they recommend personal favorites, not kitchen-dictated strengths – perhaps because the menu attempts to cover such a vast amount of culinary ground, from Louisiana crab cakes to Mongolian beef. It adds to that range dishes such as sweet and sour chicken, hot wings and General Tso's chicken.

I'm not averse to a place offering both challenging or less-usual dishes and tried-and-true American best-sellers, but it's quite difficult to do, and it's a disservice to people learning about various cuisines to do them offhandedly.

Not to mention a waste of money.

Which is a shame, since obviously no effort was spared in the handsome outfitting of Sabi. Cool celery walls enclose interesting ornamentation, from segmented mirrors to intricate pendant lights to faux animal heads. Seating is nicely varied, the sushi bar is roomy and the patio spacious. Views from inside are well framed.

Co-owner Ken Yung, originally from Canton, brings New York experience in several Asian cuisines, while co-owner Rob Mitchell, according to Yung, helps define what American customers want. Mitchell and his wife, Margaret, chose the name, Yung says, from the phrase “wabi sabi”: a Japanese aesthetic that values simple and imperfect beauty.

Sabi requires some adjustments on that score.

Reviews & Comments
CRITICS REVIEWS
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June 26, 2009 - The Charlotte Observer - Helen Schwab, Restaurant Writer

Sabi Asian eatery's broad menu includes dishes that range from terrific to simply unfortunate.

(Full review)
USER REVIEWS
Jun 30, 2009 - LeePresley
Sabi is the Best Restaurant at Lake Norman

I'm not sure Helen was in the right restaurant last week ... or maybe she was just having a bad day from the traffic on I-77, but in all the times that I have had lunch or dinner there (20+ times), I have never had a bad meal or experience at Sabi. I have to say that Sabi is our favorite restaurant at Lake Norman ... THANK YOU for bringing your restaurant to the lake.

I happen to live with 3 of the biggest food critics (my children) ... They are very picky about their food, but if they had a choice ... it would be Sabi every night.

We also love the relaxing nights on your patio with the live music ... great place for dinner and drinks!

I wouldn't worry to much about Helen's comments to much ... no one that I have talked to has ever said anything but "Good things" about Sabi ... and the word must be getting out because there is always a good crowd when I'm there.

Jun 28, 2009 - katherineward
Always fantastic- everything.

With the doubtful review from just another food critic and a thoughtful (not mad, people) comment from the owner, I wanted to let the readers know my family's experience with Sabi. My two sons and I have eaten at Sabi many times with family and friends and the food and service have always been impeccable. The boys love the varied kids' menu (and I love the healthy choices), and have named Sabi their all time favorite restaurant (huge for a 6 and 9 year old). Personally, I have been most impressed with everything I've ever tried from the kitchen and am thrilled that the menu has an excellent variety for a host of different palates. I get it, every plate should be perfect every time. But I wholeheartedly recommend the reviewer try something else another time. This is not just a pretty place- it is gorgeous- and it is definitely worth more consideration.

(no rating) Jun 27, 2009 - ilovesabi_com
From the owners

As an owner of Sabi I appreciate all of the wonderful comments as well as the constructive criticism. Helen is a knowledgable critic and wonderful person. We have and will continue to make changes to improve our customer service, food quality, and variety. We are in business to serve our customers and their desires. We will listen to our customers and make changes accordingly. You (our customers) are the ones who spend your hard earned money in our restaurant. We are happy to be in Davidson, and look forward to serving you for many years to come. Below is a comment that I received from a customer from last night.

Thanks,
Rob Mitchell

Rob,

We want to thank the staff at Sabi’s for their incredible service and wonderful food last night. They kept the kitchen open for the cast and crew and guests after the show. It was fabulous – everyone had a great time – and the staff was SO KIND AND GRACIOUS!!!

Please pass on our thanks. Bus and wait staff in particular were FABULOUS!!!

Thanks, Cindy

PS Loved the Flower Chicken recommended by my waiter!

Jun 27, 2009 - DrewNieporent
WHY WOULD YOU GIVE YOURSELF FOUR STARS?

Why would you, as the owner, and the 'other' reviewer (BobbyFlay) who was reviewing Helen Schwab and not the restaurant, give yourselves four stars?

Isn't that..what's the word... tacky?

(no rating) Jun 27, 2009 - chefJWU
Don't Get Mad, Get Better

It's interesting how biased individuals pounce back when a PROFESSIONAL REVIEWER gives them a not-so-positive grade. Helen Schwab has been doing this for a very long time and she is very good at what she does. She is well respected in the Charlotte culinary world.

Sabi is just one of the string of "Asian Grills" that have been flooding the Charlotte area for the last two years now. Most of them are chinese restaurant operators who decided to add sushi, Thai and other so called asian fare to their menu. They spend money on the decor, hire a "chef" and voila, you have an Asian Grill and sushi bar. Most of the time, however, they do not consistency follow-through on their promise. The key word here is consistency. Not a lot of restos in our area can execute this budding concept (asian grill) well.

Not too long ago, Kudzu on Broad on Main St. in downtown Davidson was also given two stars by the Charlotte Observer. It may or may not be a coincidence that a few months after that review, Kudzu eventually went out of business, citing "family-related..need to spend more time with the kids.." issues for closing their doors down. "Toast" now occupies that spot.

Instead of critizising Helen for her views, find ways to improve. At this early stage of your existense, this should be a wake up call for you. You have been given free advice that woud have otherwise cost you an arm and a leg if you would have hired a consultant.

The people of Davidson are mostly forgiving and will give you another chance, if they see that you are trying. Treat Davidson well, and it will do the same back to you.

Good luck.

Don't get mad, get better.

Jun 27, 2009 - Louis621
My whole family loves Sabi

The great thing about Sabi is that there is something for everyone. I bet my family has been there 20 times in the last three months and we have never had any issues like this. I looked at some of Helen's other reviews and have realized that her taste are very different from mine. I love the flower chicken and the lettuce wraps at Sabi. I guess what I am saying is everyone likes different things. I am glad Sabi offers such a great variety of foods. Some are more bland than others. Some are spicy, some are sweet. My grandmother likes some of the foods at Sabi that I think are bland, while my wife likes some of the foods I think are spicy. All of the dishes don't have to be packed full of flavor. There are dishes on the Sabi menu for everyone. My only concern is that Sabi is getting so busy that I am going to have to start making reservations. Good job Sabi.

Jun 27, 2009 - JWUchef
Don't Get Mad, Get Better

It's amazing how people get mad when an PROFESSIONAL

Jun 26, 2009 - HeatherMorris1
Thank You Sabi

I love sushi, but my husband does not. Sabi is the only place that we can both agree to go. We drive up from Charlotte at least twice a week. My husband loves the Salmon and the Filet. I finally got him to try some sushi the other week, and now he is addicted to the Pacific Fried Roll. OMG. The beer and wine selection is great. The only issue I have ever had is with the music. The live music is great, but sometimes it can get a little loud. If I mention it to Ken (the owner) he is very quick to get it lowered. Keep up the great work. Oh, my favorite thing that they just started is called Chow Down for Charity on Monday nights. They give up to 10% of sales to the charities of the customers choice. I think they have raised close to $1,000 for local charities in the first month. It is the coolest thing. See you on Monday.

(no rating) Jun 26, 2009 - julieruble
Just a comment

I write my own restaurant reviews (The Charlotte Spoon) and got a similar comment to the one above, i.e. "What do you expect when you ordered X at this restaurant that doesn't specialize in X?"

I hate that line of reasoning. A restaurant should not send out ANY dish that does not represent their menu and talents accurately, much less a dish as blatantly inedible as the one described above. Every dish on a menu is something the restaurant formulated and feels is an accurate piece of who they are, so not a SINGLE dish should fall flat.

Does the commenter above suggest that it's acceptable to risk the fish not being cooked adequately because it's described as a "Western plate"? That that's simply what you get for ordering a certain thing but not the other?

(no rating) Jun 26, 2009 - Jovardy
Sabi

If you are going to order a dish at a resturant it should be edible or not on the menu.

Jun 26, 2009 - BobbyFlay
Sabi offers a little for everyone

Helen,

As a professional food critic, I'm not sure why you would order a "Western Dish" at an Asian restaurant. The concept of Sabi requires forward thinking. Many new hip and culturally diverse restaurants offer menus of this sort. The goal is not to provide the best western dishes around, but if 4 people wanted to go out to dinner and 3 wanted asian or sushi, and one did not, that Sabi could still be in the running. Sometimes restaurants make decisions based on customers desires and not critics acclaim. The next time you review an Asian restaurant, stick with reviewing the Asian food. Let the customers who don't like the Asian food decide for themselves.


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