UNIVERSITY PARK -- Michael Dong is becoming obsessed with sushi.
A Manatee County restaurateur known for his Chinese eateries, Dong started indulging that obsession last week when he and his family opened a Japanese-fusion restaurant on Lockwood Ridge Road. Named Yuniku, which is the Japanese word for "unique," the restaurant is a new concept for the 39-year-old Dong.
He's been running restaurants since he was 17. But this time around, he wanted to go for something decidedly upscale and oriented toward an evening crowd. Specializing in sushi and sashimi and Japanese and Korean cuisine, Yuniku is in the midst of a hotbed of Japanese restaurants. About a half dozen other Japanese restaurants are nearby in University Park, Lakewood Ranch and north Sarasota County.
With 8,000 square feet at 8341 Lockwood Ridge Road, Yuniku is among the largest and most elaborate. Dong and his family spent several hundred thousand dollars gutting and remodeling a former Chinese buffet space in the University Square strip center. Tall, custom woodwork and multi-colored LED lighting punctuates the space, which conjures the aesthetic mix of a nightclub and a robata bar.
Dong, a Bradenton resident who lives part time in China with his wife and daughter, said he believes
the atmosphere and food will distinguish Yuniku in the crowded University Park restaurant scene.
"This kind of restaurant, we'll be able to draw from a half-hour away," he said.
Unlike the family's other Manatee County restaurant, the Grand Buffet on Tamiami Trail, Yuniku is a sit-down, to-order restaurant and lounge. It features several dining areas and semi-private rooms, a massive marble sushi counter and a bar that is bathed in shades of purple and lavender.
Menu items generally run between $10 and $15, but extravagant options do abound on Yuniku's menu. For big parties, a wooden boat filled with 70 pieces of sushi and sashimi, as well as a few blinking LEDs to light the way, pushes up against $89.
No less artistic are the miniature, fish-shaped ice sculptures that come to the table piled with raw tuna and salmon sashimi. The dish is emblematic of the restaurant's slogan-slash-pronunciation guide, "unique-cool."
Yuniku's staff, which is expected to top 22, used last week's soft opening to hone the operation. The artistically arranged sushi dishes, small Korean plates and teriyaki meats come to the table still sizzling are delivered by wait staff that look the part, right down to uniforms resembling Japanese kimonos.
The restaurant's sushi chefs hail from New York and Boston. Many others on staff are family members. Dong is the general manager.
All indulged in another Yuniku tagline during the first week of operations, "endless sushi and hibachi." Dong said he wanted everyone on staff to taste everything on the menu. He is still asking his chefs to make more sushi expressly for him.
"I love it," he said.
Dong said he planned for Yuniku to come into its second week as a polished, clean, precise and fun place for locals to have a sushi lunch, a dress-up dinner or a celebratory function.
"We think that first impression is important," he said.
Hibachi dining, a staple at many Japanese restaurants, was deleted from the Yuniku concept to put the sushi front and center. But the hibachi vibe isn't entirely missing. Hot iron plates delivered from the kitchen in the same manner as fajitas at a Mexican restaurant deliver some of that atmosphere.
Dong chose to locate Yuniku at the busy Lockwood-University intersection to capture diners from dense housing in Palm Aire, University Park, Lakewood Ranch and north Sarasota. He said new housing throughout those areas will further boost the potential clientele.
Yuniku is keeping similar hours to other evening-oriented restaurants in the area. Weekday and Sunday hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, the restaurant is open one hour later.
Yuniku staff can be reached at 941-993-1112.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.