Aki Hibachi & Sushi Bar

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N2013_03_01_039TABLEAs any Naperville resident knows, hitting on the ideal business mix for a town, or city, usually involves striking a balance between homegrown places and out-of-town brand-name chains. Everyone likes the idea of having a solid roster of local shops and restaurants that give the town its unique charm and character. But brand names are brand names for a reason, and many consumers take comfort in knowing exactly what to expect when they walk through the door.

Our Bolingbrook neighbors have been engaging in a similar debate as their town has developed over the past decade. While some residents appreciate having a laundry list of popular retailers and chain restaurants to choose from, others lament the lack of identity and the growing creep of “Anytown, U.S.A.”

For this latter group, the arrival of Aki Hibachi & Sushi Bar at the busy corner of Boughton and Weber Roads, in the space previously occupied by an Applebee’s, likely scored a victory for local, handcrafted cuisine. But the real win here was more epicurean than philosophical, assuming another quality ethnic option is a welcome addition to the dining landscape.

Breath of Fresh Air

Fittingly, the new Aki looks and feels wholly different from the old Applebee’s it replaced. While still a casual, comfortable dining experience, the room is far cleaner and less cluttered than the typical bar and grill milieu, with not a bewigged animal head or Beatles album cover anywhere to be found. In their place is tasteful Asian décor, including faux bamboo along several walls and an oddly situated, yet charming, full-size artificial tree sprouting from the floor amid a row of booths.

The room is divided into several sections, including a compact sushi bar, the aforementioned row of booth tables, and a pair of semi-private alcoves. The anchor of the space is the eight-grill hibachi room, where tableside cooking and theatrics provide the sizzle that once was confined to the ubiquitous fajita platters in the building’s previous life.

N2013_03_01_040TABLEPerformance for Two

Having considered the many available options—including a full range of sushi and sashimi, as well as several traditional Japanese entrees—on this cold Tuesday night, we found it hard to pass on the warmth of the full hibachi experience, even if we were the only two people in the room. Hibachi is an experience best enjoyed amid a group of strangers who become temporary companions, the chef and the crowd, feeding off of the excitement and conviviality of the moment. One could easily imagine the boisterous scene here on a busy Saturday night, even if midweek was decidedly low-key.

N2013_03_01_041TABLEBut our emcee knew just how to dial back his shtick for a more intimate performance, hitting most of the standard marks—the egg in the hat, the flying shrimp, the onion volcano—without belting it to the back row or lingering too long on any one gimmick. He rightly kept the focus where it counted the most—the plate—with a flavorful mélange of piping-hot fried rice, fresh vegetables, filet mignon, chicken, shrimp and scallops.

It may not have been the most typical of hibachi outings—there were no big oohs, aahs or rounds of applause as cutlery was juggled and oil set aflame. But it was a night that satisfied not only our appetites, but our desire for something a little bit different from the usual fare.