PROVIDENCE -- Restaurateur Haruki Kibe has been defining Japanese food in
Rhode Island for 17 years at his restaurant, Haruki.

Now, in the space that was Maverick's in Wayland Square, Kibe has opened a second restaurant that elevates Japanese dining in Rhode Island to four-star status.

In addition to a squad of sushi chefs at the sushi bar, he has hired the formidable Etsuko Kurosaka in the kitchen. Born in Japan, Kurosaka spent the last three years in California and many of her dishes reflect the varied flavors there -- a Japanese-style chile relleno stuffed with crabmeat, thinly sliced sirloin rolled with cheese and asparagus, carpaccio-style salmon and tuna, with Japanese salsa and Balsamic dressing.

The decor is upscale and minimalist, yet comfortable, with a chi-chi bar in one room and a sleek, curved sushi bar lining one side of the dining area. Walls are bathed in soft greens and blues, with a large, round, etched-glass window as a focal point.

Haruki in Cranston has established a reputation for authenticity, and the same remains true at the new location. Yet here the menu has been refined and tweaked, with a contemporary, American edge. There are fewer selections and no bento boxes. Kibe and Kurosaka interpret classic Japanese with a flair for the fusion between East and West.

The chile relleno is a perfect example of this. When I saw the description of this classic Mexican stuffed pepper on the menu under hot appetizers, I thought I had misread something. But there it was -- a mildly hot Anaheim chile stuffed with feathery shreds of crabmeat and wrapped in an egg, omelet style.

Eggs served this way, especially to enrobe another ingredient such as rice (or in this case the crabmeat), have become very common in Japanese cooking. With a spicy remoulade-like sauce, too, it's more Japanese in preparation than ingredients.

Another appetizer that fits that description is something called a "volcano." Here, a sweet, hefty seared scallop rests underneath a tower of flavor -- from a peppery mayonnaise-inspired sauce to a perfectly fried, tiny quail egg -- plump and full of rich flavor, dotted with the saltiness of pretty caviar.

From a selection of cooked maki (stuffed, seaweed-wrapped rice rolls) I winnowed the ample list down to an inside-out roll stuffed with fleshy shrimp, finely sliced strips of cucumber and bits of buttery, nutty flavored avocado. On the outside, nestled into the rice, was colorful masago, the tiny, orange fish eggs. These rolls are almost impossibly large to eat, but fun to try.

Oshinko is a term used for pickled things, particularly vegetables. Daikon (radish) is pickled until it is salty, with a bright yellow color. Here, its earthy flavor is captured in the rice of a maki roll, perfect when dipped into tawny soy sauce.

By now the waiter had proven himself in spades. Being well-versed in the depth of Japanese menu selections is, I imagine, difficult for the average American. But he let us know that he had lived in Japan for two years. It was a blessing to have him guide us to many items, such as the ume-shiso, that were unfamiliar.

In ume shiso, the Japanese (and Haruki) blend the two most important qualities of their cuisine: flavor and beauty. Rolled like a cone, ume shiso is rolled nori (seaweed sheets) wrapped around plum paste (ume is plum in Japanese), oba (or shiso, a mint-like herb) and sliced cucumber. It's a sweet-and-sour treat, and meant to be eaten with your hands, like a wrap.

He also brought us a tiny tasting of sesame string beans -- a side dish on the menu -- that turned out to be one of the tastiest things I tried all evening. Crunchy, bright-flavored beans are lightly bathed in a sesame dressing that is nutty and sweet at the same time.

Since the sushi craze hit the United States back in the '80s, sushi has gotten the bulk of the attention given Japanese food in this country. But there are so many other aspects to this vibrant cusine: teriyaki, udon (wheat noodle) dishes and donburi (fried foods that usually are lightly breaded cutlets) as well as tempura, are all on the menu at Haruki East.

Tempura is a must for me, and a benchmark dish as well. In an entree, big, fleshy, butterfly shrimp are fried in a lacy batter, as are sweet potatoes, carrots, eggplant and peppers, their crunchy sweetness balanced by dipping them in a soy-laced sauce.

Even dessert at Haruki East is a revelation. True, most Japanese restaurants offer green-tea flavored and ginger flavored ice creams. But here -- as it is with the rest of the offerings -- the musty sweetness of the green tea, with its astringent, cleansing after bite, is head and shoulders above the rest.

The menu has many sections, from a la carte sushi to maki and sashimi entrees. Non-sushi entrees are $13 to $16.50. Sushi entrees are $14 to $21. sashimi entrees are $18 and $24. Sushi and maki, cooked and fresh, are $3.50 to $11.50 per order, with usually four to six in a selection. There are varied specials, such as shitake shrimp and toasted rice tofu, are $4.25 to $11. Hot and chilled appetizers are $6 to $14. Desserts are $3.50 to $5.

Journal Restaurant Critic

Haruki East
172 Wayland Ave.
Providence, RI 02906-4308
Telephone: 401-223-0332 & 401-490-3241