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Chinese-Japanese fusion in Stoneham

Sushi pizza isn't the only irreverent dish on the menu at Sato II in Stoneham.

Like the original Sato in Waltham, the new Sato II is an unusual hybrid. Rather than the usual Korean-Japanese setup so common among sushi joints, the Satos serve Chinese and Japanese dishes, as well as some pretty good sushi. And while most two-cuisine joints corral each country to its own side of the menu, at the Satos there's a whole lot of fraternizing going on.

Japanese pickled ginger finds its way into Chinese sweet ginger lamb. Chinese-American General Gau's sauce turns up on Japanese tempura shrimp. Sake is shaken with lime into the pineapple-vodka martini. Oh, and the chef also has a tendency to splash French merlot or California chardonnay into the wok when he's cooking up any of the dishes.

So what is going on here? Co-owner Douglas Tran says he and his three Sato II partners have simply tossed tradition to the changing culinary winds.

"People started not really being crazy about Chinese food because a lot of it is fried and not so healthy," says Tran, who is Chinese but grew up in Vietnam. So a light, very fresh, and somewhat quirky East-East-West fusion menu was born.

For the most part, they don't mess with the sushi. The likes of melt-in-your-mouth yellow tail, buttery maguro and toro tuna, and all the usual maki rolls are simply and skillfully prepared.

The fish is fresh and properly cut. The rice is nicely seasoned and used in proper proportion. Overall, it's a cut above what you'll find at most neighborhood sushi spots, but the prices are standard: mostly $3-$4 for two pieces of nigiri and $3-$6 for six-piece maki rolls.

The sushi pizza ($8.95), however, sums up the will-try-anything attitude of this bunch. Order "pizza" here and a frozen cake of cooked sushi rice is tossed in the deep fryer. Then, while the crispy cake is still warm, sushi chef and co-owner Billy Chiu tops it with whatever looks good: usually tuna, salmon, and yellow tail finished with avocado, spicy mayo, and a confetti of cucumber and pickled turnip.

It's kind of like eating two of the most addictive foods -- French fries and sushi -- at once. Purists might balk at a fried cake overpowering the delicacy of the raw fish, but it's quite tasty and makes a great appetizer for two.

Salads hail from all compass directions, ranging from mixed greens with wine vinaigrette ($3.65) to a Persian salad with olive oil-lemon-garlic dressing ($4.75). I made a light meal of the spicy Caribbean seaweed salad ($8.95). It seems improbable, but this mix of Japanese seaweed salad, bean sprouts, jerk-rubbed grilled shrimp, and a rainbow of shredded veggies unites into one pleasing, refreshing mix.

Appetizers got mixed reviews at our table. The scallion pancake ($3.95) was flavorful and not too greasy, but it could have been crispier and less dense. The pork-filled Peking ravioli ($5.95) was declared "mushy" and its flavor just "OK" by the dumpling connoisseur at our table.

I loved the buttery taste and light chestnut flour batter on the fried calamari ($7.75) dressed solely with a dice of hot and sweet peppers. But others at the table longed for a dipping sauce.

We did hit upon finds among the entrees, though. Mango duck with eggplant ($14.95) bears the mark of co-owner/chef Fei Chen. Chen's family restaurant in China specialized in noodle, steamed seafood, and duck, so he starts out traditionally with a light soy, orange peel, and star-anise marinade.

But the very tender duck that arrives atop fat, juicy spears of perfectly ripe mango and fresh, whole baby eggplant is drizzled with a light garlic-soy sauce "adjusted" with fresh lime juice and merlot. As Tran says, the "adjusting brings up the whole flavor."

For sake shrimp and scallops ($14.95), Chen cuts the bitter edge of the sake with chardonnay and sweet pickled ginger to good effect. However, the deep flavor of the meat in the sweet ginger lamb with zucchini and yellow squash ($11.95) would have been better matched with fresh rather than pickled ginger.

Tran and co-owner/manager Danny Sit are unashamed to admit their inspirations. Seeking to capture the fanfare of Bennigan's fajitas, Sato's sizzling seafood platter ($13.95) sears up tender shrimp, scallops, crab, and squid in a garlic-oyster sauce spiked with sherry.

Classic dishes like teriyaki and stir-fries are served as well. They won't wow those seeking authentic fare, but they benefit from the use of the right fresh vegetables rather than a one-size-fits-all mix.

Cashew chicken ($8.95) stood out for its flavorful homemade brown sauce, big, whole cashews, and lightly stir-fried fresh celery. A very basic, comforting chow foon ($7.95) featured tender, wide rice noodles with bean sprouts, lots of scallions, and a choice of grilled meat.

Desserts are either chocolate cake or Asian ice cream flavors and fruits, just to be sure there's "something for everyone," says Tran.

All Cheap Eats reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants.

Acapulco Mexican Restaurant 464 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-4328. This looks, sounds and tastes like a typical Mexican restaurant, from the sombreros and serapes on the walls to the homemade sangria and guitar trio on weekends. (Alas, no margaritas: no liquor license.) Start with the hefty Mexican pizza, and if you're still hungry, try the enchiladas poblanas, stuffed with chicken and covered with a rich mole sauce. The queso asado and avocado relleno are well executed; everything is fresh and well balanced. For a different dish, try the pollo al cilantro -- chicken cooked in a cilantro sauce with tons of peppers. Finish with a helping of flan. (6/10/04, B.E.) Dok Bua Thai Kitchen 411 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-232-2955. Lots of kitsch here -- like a neon palm tree and a row of refrigerators covered in foliage contact paper -- and some terrific Thai food as well. Everything this market-turned-restaurant makes is luscious, including pad si ew (pad Thai's kin); a puffy omelet with ground shrimp; and crunchy papaya salad. The staff is just as friendly as can be. (6/3/04, S.J.)

Krazy Karry's Backyard Grill 319 Broadway, Arlington. 617-643-2004. It looks, feels, and smells a bit like the Golden Arches, and for good reason: Its owner is a former McDonald's franchisee. But this folksy fast-food restaurant is more than a Mickey D's ripoff. The certified Angus beef burgers, grilled on an open-flame charbroiler, are far better than most chain patties. The veggie burgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, and hand-tossed salads provide lots of healthful choices. And a community bulletin board lends a neighborly feel. (05/27/04, S.P.) Aneka Rasa 122 Harvard Ave., Allston. 617-562-8989. Malaysian cuisine, with its fragrant palette of flavors, is one of the most exciting cuisines in Southeast Asia, and this independently owned spinoff of the Penang restaurant chain is a good place to explore it. Order dishes to share, and you're bound to find favorites from rich coconut curries and spicy noodle soups to tropical salads and savory grilled meats. (5/20/04, D.T.)

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