The dominant feature of Akira is a striking, white stone Buddha statue that is visible from across the street. It is set against a dark, floor-to-ceiling fountain, upon a small koi pond, and at the threshold of a long hallway that connects the front dining room and the rear hibachi kitchen.
This is the true gatekeeper of the restaurant, even set against the back wall of the main dining room; but it’s more than that. It’s the first clue into the mind of chef-owner Ming “Frank” Zheng, the man who is bringing the third of his South Jersey hibachi-sushi locations to Haddon Avenue.
“It’s all about the Buddha,” Zheng said. “It’s Zen, it is comfortable, peaceful, relaxing. This is my style. I choose the color and I play around with the lighting.”
He’s not kidding, either. The ceilings are adorned with custom-made chandeliers. The walls change from speckled, translucent glass to flagstone and tile to bamboo runners behind which color-changing LEDs are submerged.
Offsetting the bright colors are deep leather seats and dark wooden tables. In the back, the hibachi room is a combination of gold and green with red accents and portraits of the Buddha.
And with a flick of the switch, Zheng can make the lights dance, shifting the mood for any occasion.
“We have special music and laser lighting and special candles for birthdays,” he said. “We do a lot of parties.”
Tasting the flavors this week
There’s a few coming up this week, in fact. Akira opens its doors to the public with a soft launch and tasting begins at lunchtime on Wednesday, Dec. 19. Guests are invited to stop by and sample hors d'oeuvres from 1 to 3 p.m.
“We’re going to make some dishes right on the sushi bar, and the chef’s going to cook on the grill,” Zheng said. “Basically, people will be coming in and taking a look around the restaurant.”
The action continues all day on Thursday, Dec. 20, and for lunch on Friday, Dec. 21, when Zheng is offering guests 30 percent off their total bill.
After that, Akira will have its grand opening, all-you-can-eat party on Friday from 7 p.m. to midnight. Tickets are $30, purchasable at the Akira Voorhees location. Space is limited to about 100 people, and Zheng estimates that about half the tickets are already sold.
The menu will include items from the hibachi and sushi bar; everything from lobster and scallops, to chicken and steak. Beverages will be served and BYOB is permitted.
Zheng says the cuisine at Akira is based around Pacific dishes, in which sushi and hibachi feature prominently. He promises “lots of special rolls,” including the yellowtail jalapeño sushi, for which Akira has become known at its other locations, and carrying fish by season. The Spanish mackerel that is in season right now is only available three months out of the year, he said. (“Winter time is the best time to have seafood because the fish is fat.”)
'All about the quality'
“Akira is all about the quality,” Zheng promises. “We carry steak, shrimp, lobster, file mignon, t-bone, lamb chop; certified Angus beef. We use the best salmon. We do have vegetarian dishes and a vegetable sushi entrée.”
The restaurant is named “Akira” after the Japanese word for “sunrise.” Zheng founded the original location in Manhattan in 2001 with two other partners—three sons. The events of 9/11 forced them out of Manhattan, and he came to Mt. Laurel, Moorestown and Voorhees before Collingswood.
Although Italian reigns in Collingswood, Asian cuisine is making a push. In the past year, Indiya and Fusion Bay have opened, and another Indian restaurant is due to open next year. There are no other hibachi restaurants in town, and only a few serve sushi—Woksabi, Chow’s, Sushi Lin—but Zheng knows that to be in the conversation, his food is going to be compared with the fare at Sagami.
“Everybody knows about Sagami, absolutely,” he said, “but my style is totally different. We keep the traditional, we know the basic overlay; we do a lot on top of that.
“It’s going to be different.”