The Raw and the Cooked

If you ascribe to the bigger-is-better school, the underwhelming size of Tani Guchi's Place might deter you. It shouldn't. What it lacks in space, this little eatery more than makes up for in quality, and quantity, of food. Carole and Terutoshi ("Terry") Taniguchi provide a warm atmosphere and excellent fare in their year-old North Miami location. But more about the couple later. Let's talk teriyaki.

The lengthy menu lists an infinite number of options. Sushi lovers can choose from nearly 50 fillings for maki (in which the ingredients are arranged with rice on a seaweed or egg wrapper, rolled, and cut into bite-size pieces) and the round hand-formed nigiri. Prices range from $1 for individual pieces to $3.50 for the entire six-piece roll. The possibilities are endless: bonito, snow crab, sea urchin, salmon, salmon caviar, maguro tuna, and freshwater eel, to name but a few. Ten appetizers (such as salmon roe with a giant radish) and a mind-boggling array of dinner platters can also be ordered from the sushi bar. Don't want sushi? Choose from nineteen other appetizers, such as beef negimaki (sliced beef rolled with scallion and served with teriyaki sauce), beef tataki (thinly sliced, rare steak with ponzu sauce), tempura dishes, and yasai itame (sauteed vegetables with a sesame-seed-studded sauce). Dinner offerings are almost as plentiful as sushi items, with the usual teriyaki and tempura dishes as well as a few less traditional items. Most of the starters are priced between $3.75 and $4.25 (the top-of-the-line beef negimaki costs $7.25), rice and noodle sides cost from $1 to $2 with dinner, and four salads are available at prices from $2.25 to $4.95. Complete dinners cost between $8.95 and $21.95 (for lobster-and-steak teriyake). At lunch, the menu is only slightly scaled down and the costs are a bit lower.

Not only are prices reasonable, but the variety and quality are exceptional. I took a friend who's a certified sushi freak and who has sampled the delicacy in sushi-saturated cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. She gave this place high marks - higher, in fact, than any other local sushi bar we visited. We tried the "sushi special": a snow crab California roll with caviar ($5.75), and the six pieces seemed to contain the meat of an entire snow crab leg. The thick crab was bundled in a coat made of thin slivers of avocado, and that in turn was enveloped in seaweed and crowned with a thin layer of rice. Topped with pink salmon roe and garnished with a ginger-scented radish rose, the dish was a delight to the eye as well as the tongue. The morsels were as intricate and colorful as a piece of cloisonne jewelry.

The evening I brought my trusty dining companion, we made short work of an inside-out California roll, washing it down with Gekkeikan sake. We expected the usual warm rice wine, but this elixir was served cold with a sliver of cucumber in the glass. Carole Taniguchi urged us to try this new trendy way of drinking the wine. Although the rush was the same, the chill was an interesting difference from the usual hot flash we've always associated with sake. I still prefer my sake warm, but became accustomed to this Miami version. My companion didn't fancy the change and ordered a Suntory beer. Several Japanese beers are available (Sapporo, Kirin, and Asahi among them), as are plum wines and a few different brands of sake. Prices are a bit hard to pin down - a handwritten note attached to the menu announced that "due to two tax increases, beer and wine has been increased," - but plan on spending between $3 and $4 for a beer, and between $8 and $14 for a bottle of sake.

Soup aficionados can start a meal with any of the four available, including miso with or without mussels, soba (buckwheat noodles), and udon (pork). We sampled the miso, which came with our dinner, and although the miso paste kept separating from the broth, the soup was heartier than many of this ilk. A periodic stir brought paste, broth, and a heady infusion of spring onions and tofu into harmony again. Salad, rice (brown, white, or fried), and green tea are also included in the price of a meal, and the salad was infinitely more elaborate than at other Japanese restaurants. Although it contained the ubiquitous iceberg, this lettuce was not the limp listless rabbit food found elsewhere. The greens were plentiful, cold, and crisp, festooned with cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, red cabbage, and bean sprouts. A pink dressing, infused with ginger, added welcome zest to the mix.

My dining companion chose shrimp with soft noodles (one of twelve such dishes offered) and was pleased with both the size and taste of his meal. The pan-fried whole-wheat noodles absorbed most of the sesame-scented sauce coating the enormous melange of crustaceans and finely minced carrots and onions.

My own seafood tempura platter seemed even more loaded with food than my companion's plate. For those experimenting with Japanese cuisine, tempura is a good place to start. The batter-dipped items have the appeal of similar American fried foods, but they are cooked in a flash and so are far lighter and more healthful. I was impressed with this version. The shrimp, dolphin, and vegetables were coated in a rice-flour breading, and although the batter was a bit heavy, it was tasty and free of excess oil. But while everything else was delicious, the broccoli was somewhat gummy and it would have been nice in a seafood tempura to have a little more variety than just shrimp and dolphin. A sliver of squid or a plump scallop might have greatly added to the dish's appeal. I also wished for a little more heat in all of the tempura. The point-counterpoint sensation of a piping-hot morsel dipped in cool sauce is one of the dish's special sensations. But these are small complaints for a meal so tasty, reasonably priced, and filling.

Overall, Tani Guchi's Place sustained its high standards right through dessert, a course eschewed by many Japanese restaurants. With the American sweet tooth in mind, they offer fruit plates (featuring combinations of pineapple, grapes, and oranges) and exotic ice cream flavors such as green tea, ginger, and azuki (red bean). The line of people waiting to be seated made us feel too guilty to order dessert, and Carole Taniguchi (who continuously traversed the room, checking on her customers) seemed relieved when we declined. She was obviously anxious to accommodate those waiting outside, and happily informed us that a rabbi and his family were next in line for our table. Oblivious to the crowd, Terry Taniguchi stood behind the small sushi bar, steadily shaping the tidbits that have all Miami beating a path to the door.

TANI GUCHI'S PLACE
2224 NE 123rd St; 892-6744. Hours: Lunch Monday - Saturday from noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday - Saturday from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m., and Sunday from 4:00 to 9:00 p.m.

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