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Low-impact sushi: Sapporo Bistro

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South Charlotte is known for its larger-than-life shopping centers like Blakeney Shopping Center or Ballantyne. But occasionally, smaller shopping spots, without the prerequisite grocery store or bank, appear. One such place is the Fountains Shopping Center on a non-descript stretch of Ardrey Kell Road.

The lack of vibrancy in a parking lot used to throw up all sorts of red flags, but in the current economy, parking lots across town seem sparse. So while any urban observer will tell you that when it comes to dining out, first impressions are usually correct, in these times, perhaps not. A place like Sapporo Bistro, which opened last October, may hold a surprise.

Sapporo's décor is modest: A small, sparingly decorated, 36-seat eatery whose front door opens unimpeded into the dining room with winter winds following arriving customers. A sushi bar, fronted by a half dozen bar stools, is centered at the rear of the dining room while a television tuned into CNN views the room from one corner. Colorful lighting dangles above the tables. All the indicators point to a suburban dining experience of the most subdued, predictable kind.

For the past 13 years or so, Sapporo's owners, brothers Ben and Feng Wang, have had other restaurants in the Charlotte area. Among these are Wang & King Asian Cafe on South Tryon and the China Express at Lake Norman. All of these restaurants, however, have featured primarily Chinese cuisine, the Wang's cultural heritage. Sapporo Bistro is almost exclusively Japanese, although a lettuce wrap appetizer, Singaporean curried noodles and some other pan-Asian dishes -- like scattered sushi, chirashi -- are offered.

The mood at Sapporo is upbeat, and the attention to detail is evident. The one server is conscientious, and the food comes quickly. The wine list, including wines by the glass, is brief, but the beverage list offers an assortment of domestic and Asian beers.

Sapporo's menu yields many delights. While the miso soup tastes reconstituted, the kitchen's strength is revealed in the overly familiar gyoza pork dumplings finessed into flavorful, memorable morsels.

At the helm of the sushi bar is Andy, the one-name Itamae who only came to Sapporo Bistro recently but is a veteran on the local sushi scene. His trays show off his creative presentation skills, even if the rolls themselves are not inventive. The sushi roster has the usual suspects like California, spider and dynamite, and then there's the questionable: The Boston roll combines shrimp, lettuce, asparagus and mayonnaise. (No, I didn't try it.)

More than one exurbia eatery has squandered its resources by overreaching for what is not necessary. For sushi tuna connoisseurs, this means no prohibitively expensive bluefin tuna, or nigiri, or wonderfully inventive rolls. Throwing down the big bucks for small bites isn't what Charlotteans are apt to do right now anyway. With that in mind, Sapporo offers price deals. In their special combination section are two or three roll combos inclusive of soup or salad for $9 or $14.

Andy's deftly cleaved, sparkling Maki rolls and sashimi arrive fresh and expertly prepared. Being hopelessly addicted to sticky rice, I rarely get beyond the sushi bar at Japanese restaurants. Sapporo, however, offers many choices beyond sushi (and cooked sushi bar items are notated on the menu). Old standbys include bento boxes, tempura, teriyaki and hibachi -- steak, chicken, shrimp and scallops. Their udon is improbably good with a tangle of noodles sided by three enormous skewers of crispy tempura shrimp.

Most of the dinner entrées range from $10 for vegetable tempura to the $19 hibachi scallops inclusive of miso soup, a green salad, dumplings and a California roll. The restaurant is open for lunch and offers a smaller menu. The three-maki-roll special with miso soup or green salad is $10.50 while bento boxes with dumplings, a Maki roll, and a teriyaki or tempura meat item is $12.

Recently the neighboring tenant -- a floral gift shop -- vacated and the Wangs now plan to expand the restaurant into that space. Sapporo Bistro is an unassuming neighborhood spot operated by savvy restaurateurs. With times being tough, the prices here are deals. It may be a bit of a distance for some readers, but those in the neighborhood shouldn't keep their distance.

Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? To contact Tricia, send information via e-mail (no attachments, please -- these are destined for the spam filter):

tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com

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