By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
For some writers, Japanese food falls into that "poor relation" category. In his May 1993 review of Fujiya in Kendall, Miami Herald critic Geoffrey Tomb confesses that he "rank[s] Japanese food right down there with rutabaga and sardine soup." Significantly, Fujiya is the last Japanese restaurant Tomb has reviewed to date, and the only one featured in the Herald's "Fine Dining" capsules. (The token Japanese entry in "Budget Dining" is Shiroi Hana, reviewed by Kendall Hamersly in February 1993.)
Tomb is right, however, when he suggests that "Japanese-American restaurant dining is one-dimensional...." It can be, especially in Miami, where, owing to the somewhat networked pool of sushi chefs and restaurateurs, eateries do indeed seem all on one level; a recent trend toward extensive menus, the items of which sometimes differ by a single ingredient (particularly in sushi rolls), adds to the sense of sameness. The inevitable generalizations suggest that writing about individual Japanese restaurants would be difficult for any critic.
This past year's proliferation of new sushi bars hasn't exactly made the job easier, which is why I've chosen to review a handful of Japanese places in this week's column; rather than causing me to dwell on similarities, immediate comparisons reinforce the differences among restaurants. This wide-ranging taste test served another purpose. Most sushi fans, having established a certain rapport with a satisfactory restaurant (usually one that's within the confines of their neighborhood) are loath to search for alternatives that may not be as good or as convenient. Now I'm not saying we should all abandon past Best of Miami winners Maiko, Tani Guchi's Place, and Rocky Aoki's Sushi Palace Benihana of Tokyo. By sampling some of the newest restaurants in a variety of municipalities, I've given myself -- and, I hope, a few other diehard devotees -- some fairly interesting options:
Previously a train-themed restaurant called the Depot, South Miami's Akashi Japanese Restaurant features black-painted bricks and bamboo-colored wall paneling. Boxy glass tables exhibiting miniature railway stations and routes are an obvious Depot remnant. But the impressively executed fare is certainly no leftover.
We covered our table's transit system with the Akashi special boat (for one; the boat is also offered for two or more), an artistic preparation of sushi and sashimi that so often is a true test of any sushi restaurant. The nigiri -- thick slices of tuna, salmon, snapper, and octopus, each layered over a bite-size ball of lightly vinegared rice -- were all exceptionally tender and flavorful; the only subpar piece was a surprisingly limp ebi (filleted shrimp). A cocktail glass filled with yellowtail sashimi cut into squares and dusted with masago (smelt eggs) was glued to the wood with wasabi (an ingenious use of that versatile condiment, we noted). Succulent tuna and salmon sashimi were poised on curly puffs of shredded carrots and daikon; slices of tekka maki were nicely proportioned chunks of tuna and scallions rolled tightly in rice and seaweed.
Akashi offers more than 30 "exotic" (read: multi-ingredient) makimono, or sushi rolls. A chama roll A cooked salmon, crab stick, scallions, cucumber, avocado, mayonnaise, and masago A was, aside from the fake crab meat, perfection (not to be confused with a roll called "perfection": eel, asparagus, avocado, and roe wrapped in floury, crepelike datemaki). While the rice is always room temperature no matter what roll you order, the chill of raw fish and the warmth of cooked fish alter the textures and flavors of a roll's ingredients accordingly. Although both featured avocado, the chama was creamier than the cucumber-and-eel roll, a cooler but no less delicious concoction of cooked eel and crab stick wrapped in translucent "leaves" of cucumber.
A lengthy multicourse meal is one of the pleasures associated with Japanese dining. After sampling the sushi, we ordered the house salad, which consisted of iceberg lettuce decorated with cucumber and tomato slices, shredded carrot, steamed asparagus, snow peas, ebi, and crab sticks. (A crisp green salad or a bowl of mild miso soup stocked with tofu and seaweed accompanies entrees.) Despite the alluring ingredients, dressings were disappointing, the honey-miso not sweet enough and the carrot-ginger a thin, watery mixture, and we were tempted to make use of the piquant orange-and-soy sauce that accompanied the beautifully seared, razor-thin slices of tuna tataki.
Several of Akashi's hot dishes were among the best I've tasted in Miami. Age tofu comprised squares of firm bean curd deep-fried to a melting sponginess, served on a soy-flavored broth and garnished with ground ginger and scallions. Chicken teriyaki was a slivered breast that had genuine grill flavor under the enveloping but balanced marinade. Ton katsu, an outstanding pork loin breaded, fried, and sliced into strips, was so juicy it resembled the finest veal.