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Cruising through the crowd at Doraku during a recent Friday happy hour, a diner who had not been to this SoBe sushi spot since it opened in 2000 wouldn't have even a hint it was the same space. A room that began life as a pop-art hallucination — amoebalike primary-color sea creatures covered the walls; electric jellyfish provided light — is now a soothingly rustic rough-wood-paneled room that's a dead ringer for a Japanese country teahouse (except for the very busy bar).
Doraku's days of meals for single-digit prices have disappeared — except Fridays, from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m., when it's easy to understand why Doraku's name translates to "joy." During this locals' insider-fave happy hour, the $9 tab for one specialty cocktail gets each diner two drinks plus unlimited trips to a tasty buffet. The selection is small (mostly California rolls and similar basic makis, plus chicken wings, mussels, and fruit salad), but the sushi is fresh-made, the sake-steamed mussels come dressed with a habit-forming miso/yuzu potion, and servings are big. It's a $9 full dinner.
But don't let the bargain prevent you from exploring the regular menu, which hasn't changed much. This stability is no cause for criticism; most dishes remain more imaginative and more well executed than the fare at average sushi bars. Only one item tried during two recent visits, crispy calamari with olora curry sauce, had gone dramatically downhill; the squid, lightly crusted on a previous visit, was encased in a thick coating that more closely resembled plaster than panko crumbs. Fried-seafood lovers will be happier with rock shrimp and oriental basil leaves, which came covered in far superior, lighter batter.
Though other Japanese eateries do fish carpaccio, Doraku's is more balanced and refined. A salmon carpaccio's sauce was not the usual thick mayo glop, but a thinner cream enlivened and lightened with spicy ginger. Hamachi came with a miso sauce that was typically sweet, but jalapeño heat countered the sugar. And ahi, often paired with yuzu — and just as often overwhelmed by the exotic citrus's extreme tartness — comes with a gentler creamy yuzu sauce, further mellowed by drizzles of olive oil.
The sushi selection was disappointing for a couple of reasons. First, neither of the two types of toro (fatty belly tuna) on the menu was actually available. Second, there was no local fish whatsoever (according to our server, who seemed stunned at the odd question) — not even the usual grouper or yellowtail snapper. But Doraku's flown-in fish was exceptionally fresh, thanks to corporate owner Benihana's worldwide resources.
And fans of nontraditional sushi, who are up on creativity but down on cream cheese, will find a larger-than-usual selection of makis that downplay the gimmickry. A crunchy Alaskan roll, for instance, sounded like tempura-flake city but turned out to be a remarkably sleek inside-out maki with king crab inside and salmon slices outside; the crunch came from a liberal topping of black fish roe. Even a spicy crunchy salmon roll, which did contain tempura flakes, was subtle, using just enough savory fried batter (along with raw salmon, scallion, and hot kim chee) to provide mouthwatering crunch without grease.
And vegetarians needn't yawn through another plebian cucumber maki. Instead there's a salad roll, with cuke plus mesclun, avocado, tomato, and tangy/sweet ginger dressing. Off the carbs? No worries: Drunken Buddha lettuce wraps aren't really wraps (more like a diced veg mix in lettuce cups), and don't really taste Japanese (more like Chinese), but they're rice-free. And the sauté's salty/sweet pungency definitely gives life to the tired idea that vegetarian dishes are intrinsically flavorless.
Adding to the enjoyment is a sake menu that will be a revelation to those accustomed to the standard sushi bar liquor, which is usually served hot for good reason: Heat kills the raw taste. In truth, sake (here mostly served cold or room temperature) can be as subtle as wine. And an informed DIY tasting of the possibilities is easy for even novices to assemble, thanks to Doraku's detailed menu descriptions. Kanpai (cheers)! Eat, drink, and be joyful.