Munch goes to Misaki

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Munch, reared in a working-class river town, has been wearing secondhand clothes for decades, well before it was known as "vintage." Back then, it was just called "poor." Thus, Munch is familiar with the virtues of retrofitting and creative reuse. Why pay $200 for a pair of jeans when you can pay $3 at the local Goodwill store?

In Munch's uber-weenie Sierra Club farm-share sustainable worldview, recycling beats building new almost every time. And yet, Munch was uncertain what to make of the semi-opulent concrete mega-bunker that once housed the popular (Louis) Tambellini's on Route 51, which begat the short-lived Amici Italian restaurant and banquet hall, which has now been repurposed into an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet called Misaki.

Of the many Tambellini brothers' restaurants to grace Pittsburgh after World War II, the one built in the early 1980s on Saw Mill Run Boulevard, just south of the Liberty Tunnels, might have been the most iconic, if not the best of them. When stuffed to the gills, it could seat 600 -- more than all but a handful of restaurants in Pittsburgh, and bigger than all but the biggest hotel ballrooms -- and at its peak was doing more than $8 million a year in food sales, mostly Italian and seafood (to be followed, of course, by cheesecake). For decades, an eternity in the food service industry, it was one of the most successful restaurants in the region.

In 2006, the building and the business were purchased from the Tambellini family by roofing magnate-turned-restaurateur Ed Dunlap, who, at the time, was busy collecting popular Pittsburgh dining establishments like so many Pokemon chips. He bought LeMont on Mount Washington, Palate Downtown, Le Pommier on the South Side, The Colony in Scott. LeMont remains open, but the others have either closed or are operating under new names, including Louis Tambellini's.

This couldn't possibly work, could it? A sushi joint in a cavern of a restaurant that still bears the faded "Amici" signage on the front facade? That still has the old brass light fixtures hanging from the ceiling -- and generic Tuscan village paintings hanging on the wall -- from two restaurants ago?

Well, there's no accounting for taste, and Munch is here to tell you that, somehow, an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant may have been just the ticket for this space. Yes, it looks like an Olive Garden on steroids. But darn it, this is America, and if folks from Pittsburgh's South Hills want to eat crab rangoon and pork buns in a place that looks like an Olive Garden, that's their God-given right.

Last Friday, 50 or 60 of them were exercising that right at lunchtime, and a real mix of Pittsburghers, too -- young families, daughters taking their mothers out to lunch, a few blue-suited businessmen, contractors splattered in paint and drywall paste, a group of honest-to-goodness Shriners, plus Munch and a companion. It wasn't full by any stretch, but it certainly wasn't empty.

By Munch's count, there were four dozen types of sushi, nigiri and maki available, which is to say nothing of the crab legs, noodles, seafood, build-your-own miso soup bar, walk-up hibachi grill, salt-and-pepper shrimp, gyoza, dessert bar, breakfast bar (Chinese-style dim sum), frog legs and a dozen other things Munch sampled but neglected to write down. (It also has a full bar, something most buffets lack, plus some non-threatening selections for the kids, like pizza and fries.)

Will you like it? Depends. Look, there are two types of people -- those who like buffet-style restaurants and those who do not. Dear One of Munch, who watches too many of those "Dateline" specials where they show you all the horrifying types of diseases you can catch from a restaurant sneeze guard or a hotel remote control, is petrified of them. Munch embraces them. Golden Corral, Hoss's, OCB, China Palace, Ponderosa, the Bellagio, cruise ships, Grand Concourse Sunday brunch -- Munch has conquered them all with gusto.

The point is, if you like buffets, you will like this one. The selection is vast -- wider than Hokkaido, the three-year-old Asian buffet in Squirrel Hill -- and the service is friendly. Misaki carried a few items that Munch has not seen at other Asian buffets outside of a Sunday dim sum: turnip cake, for example. Jason Yu, who runs this restaurant as well as a few others in Pittsburgh, seems intent on setting this buffet apart from similar ones via its sheer variety, and with six rows of food at an $11 lunchtime price point, he's off to a good start.

Misaki means "blossom" in Japanese, and whether Misaki will bloom into a popular successor to a onetime Pittsburgh icon is unknowable. The restaurant has some very big shoes to fill, in a very literal way.

munch

Munch: munch@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @PGMunch. Become a Facebook Friend of Munch at www.facebook.com/munchPG.


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