Under the ownership and management of chef Shan Tao, the longtime South Broadway sushi restaurant Seki has undergone design and menu reinvention, resulting in a softer interior and a hybrid of Japanese cuisine mingled with some Korean and a bit of Chinese influence.
This approach is eminently sensible because the original was so beloved by its numerous loyal friends that any attempt at competition, a resurrection or unsuccessful imitation probably would be considered blasphemy. So, notwithstanding the shrine in the southwest corner honoring chef Yukio Sekikawa and his wife, Masako, both of whom died this year, the small restaurant has moved on, with warm wood walls, soothing dim lights and a zenlike calm in the absence of furious ambient noise.
It is, then, in this tranquil environment that the new era of Seki begins.
Whatever evolution is occurring, there is still, of course, sushi — artwork of seafood, meat and vegetables laid on or wrapped in perfectly seasoned rice — and sashimi, masterfully sliced raw fish. The variety and years of accumulated creativity might be lacking in a younger chef, but Seki's hallmarks of freshness and affordability endure.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
Where else in town can you get two pieces of buttery yellowtail for $4?
While you're at it, try futomaki. Black nori is beautifully rolled around rice, sweet marbled omelet sticks, julienne cucumbers and surimi, and avocado, all virtually bursting out of the top. When the rolls are cut, a bird's-eye view reveals a paperweight design: two squat cylinders with patterns colored yellow and tan, dark green and white, pink and coral.
Other pretty, delicious and special rolls include Indian spicy shrimp with cucumber — not so spicy, really — and the Snow White with white tuna inside and out, cucumber and avocado chunks galore, and bright orange speckles of masago (capelin roe).
And, almost as a hint of the fusion to come, there is the kim bob roll, made Korean with bits of tender lettuce and paper-thin slices of marinated grilled beef.
Speaking of grilling, there is not a healthier or more complete meal for $5 than a few ounces of lightly charred mackerel served with lettuce, shredded carrots and daikon, and soy-based dipping sauce that can be amped up with pinches of grated ginger and daikon.
From grill to the beloved deep fryer there is, naturally, tempura. My favorite, albeit a bit greasy, was the sweet shrimp with red potatoes, squash, zucchini and a couple of welcome florets of broccoli.
But I also recommend moving from that comfort zone to the delicious tako yaki: delicate fritters with a crisp crust encasing tender (yes, really!) octopus, topped with scallion slices and bonito flakes over barbecue-style sauce similar to that used on okonomiyaki pancakes. East meets West ... and South.
The topic of pancakes segues gracefully back to less-Japanese menu items that point up Seki's culinary expansion, including chi chi me, similar to the Korean pajun pancake, only smaller and, I must say, blander, made with rice flour, and studded with bits of vegetables and seafood.
Seki's heartiest item is surely the jang jang noodle, a Chinese-style Bolognese over slurpy spaghetti. The really black and really salty black bean sauce is loaded with minced pork and onions. If you invite a couple of friends, there will be enough for all of you. The mild zucchini on the side is strictly for garnish. If you want it hot, request chili sauce and amend accordingly.
Although some things at Seki have changed (unfortunately not the challenging parking), Tao is doing a good job of keeping the memory, and the delicious sushi for which Chef Sekikawa was known, alive and well for his many, many fans.
I can think of no greater tribute.