By Emily Codik
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By Laine Doss
Judging by appearances, Sushi Chef is definitely plain-Jun.
On a charmless stretch of that tree-lined drag strip we call Coral Way sits an unassuming storefront, its drab façade giving no clue that this little place is anything other than one of those yawn-and-you'll-miss-it South Florida sushi bars that have the half-life of bacteria.
The sparse interior doesn't say much either. Sushi Chef is basically a restaurant plunked down in the middle of a Japanese market -- a handful of tables and a tiny, five-seat sushi bar surrounded by glass cases bearing chopsticks, pottery, sake sets, balls of pastel cabbage, and all kinds of other stuff.
3100 Coral Way
Coral Gables, FL 33145
Region: Coral Gables/South Miami
Ah, but the menu.
Your cheery server slaps down on your table a volume more akin to the illustrated Oxford English Dictionary than a demure Japanese menu -- a bound sheaf of thick, plastic-wrapped pages crammed with postage stamp-size photographs depicting more than 200 dishes. Paging through the thing is a daunting and eye-crossing experience; by the time you reach the end, you're impossibly confused about what to order but are hungry enough to lick the photos right off the page.
Relax. Get a cold Kirin, a Sapporo, or maybe a flask of soft, fruity Kurosawa sake, and begin with the familiar -- a bowl of edamame, some gyoza, shrimp and vegetable tempura, and, if you must, a ubiquitous California roll.
Soybeans are, well, soybeans, and the California roll is the best reason I can think of for forced secession (though Sushi Chef's is about as good as this training-wheels maki gets). The dumplings, however, are delightful. They're crisply fried and golden, with remarkably flavorful ground pork filling. Tempura is even better: Individual pieces leave only a shimmer of oil behind; their lacy batter jackets crunch like deep-fried air to reveal tender shrimp or crisp vegetable nuggets.
Now let's get a little more interesting. Prosaically named "hamachi and jalapeño" is anything but ordinary. Translucent leaves of glisteningly fresh yellowfin tuna in a pool of a mildly acidic sauce made from yuzu, soy, garlic, and olive oil encircle a cilantro wreath. A slice of chili (serrano, if you want to quibble, not jalapeño) crowns each leaf, supplying just a pinch of heat. It's a lovely dish -- rich, tart, clean-tasting, a bit spicy -- all about freshness and simplicity.
Beef tataki is a good one too. Thinly sliced New York strip marinated in house-made ponzu and garnished with avocado, asparagus, and snappy shards of cucumber is health food for carnivores.
Uni tempura is a restaurant signature, one of those "Why didn't I think of that?" dishes. Two globes of creamy, succulent sea urchin roe are wrapped in pungent shiso leaves, quickly dipped in tempura batter and then hot oil, and presented as wickedly luscious little morsels like the Devil tempting Eve to take a bite of the horny apple. Bet you can't eat just one.
Not everything is all uni and apple pie. Despite its "special sauce," yaki soba was basically bland chicken and vegetables with mushy buckwheat noodles. Kushikatsu took the breaded and pan-fried notion typically reserved for pork and applied it to shrimp, which makes as much sense as steaming a pig and serving it with cocktail sauce. And two grayish-green pieces of toro suggested that toro is Japanese for "bait," though I'm not sure the vile-smelling chunks of fish would attract anything other than flies.
The kitchen redeemed itself marvelously with its sea bass in a dreamy yuzu butter sauce. The delicately flavored fish was almost as molten as the sauce itself, whose citrusy tang was the perfect counterpoint. Even the accompanying mix of stir-fried vegetables was irresistible.
Plain-Jun, it seems, is not so plain after all.