New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl kicked off a recent food/travel piece about Chinese food in Los Angeles's San Gabriel Valley with the words, "It is Friday night and I have just eaten my twelfth meal in 36 hours. I'm a little full and sort of hoping that the food will not be too delicious. But here comes a waitress carrying a platter of shrimp that were swimming in a tank just two hours ago.... My hunger comes rushing back."
I sort of know how she feels. For a review last summer, I visited five Japanese restaurants in as many days. Gorged on sushi, I temporarily lost my taste for it. The mere mention of it turned me as green as seaweed.
Ironically, the place that helped me refocus my faith opened just a week too late to be included in the article. But the thought of actually preparing an additional notice about a sushi bar was paralyzing: instant writer's block. By the time I felt ready for another printed go-round with raw fish, I'd eaten at South Beach's wonderful Yozo's Sushi Hana far too many times to be objective about it. I planned never to review it.
A month ago, though, I got another chance when Sushi Hana owner Yozo Natsui opened a second location, in the lobby of the Four Ambassadors hotel on South Bayshore Drive. Yozo's Sushi Hana of Brickell is just as good as the original Beach spot.
Both locations offer identical menus. While we deliberated over the endless list, the waitress sparked our appetites with a complimentary bowl of steaming miso soup, rather than the more typically proffered cucumber salad. We also nibbled on an order of steamed soybeans (edamame) before continuing our meal with a trio of innovative makimono. "Beauty and the Beast" roll A half delicate raw tuna and vegetables, the other half cooked eel and vegetables A was exquisite, wrapped in rice and seaweed. A spider roll, made with deep-fried soft-shell crab, asparagus, avocado, scallions, and roe was wonderfully textured. A richer treat, the French roll was wrapped in an eggy crepe and contained cream cheese, avocado, cucumber, and crab stick. Though snow crab and sprouts were supposed to be included, we saw no evidence of either.
One way to avoid sushi burnout is to avoid sushi. Sushi Hana offers plenty of other goodies to tempt you. The restaurant had run out of one of our hot appetizer requests, cheese maki, American cheese wrapped in gyoza (dumpling) dough. We settled for a more traditional shumai. Five pork-filled nuggets were crisp-skinned and tasty, their filling hot and chunky. A mustard dipping sauce was so pungent it almost overwhelmed the flavor of the pork.
A green salad (iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, snow peas, and grated carrots) is served with every entree. (Of the two dressings offered, carrot-ginger was potent and fabulous, miso-honey smooth but a little too sweet.) Harusame salad, too, was refreshing, transparent noodles tossed in a tangy but tame vinegar-heavy broth and topped with sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, crab stick, sesame seeds, and a little grated egg. Usually this dish is somewhat spicy, but the only hint of danger here came from the slippery rice pasta, which defied chopsticks and threatened to fall into one's lap. The karaoke machine was another kind of hazard entirely, one that sets apart this Hana from its smaller Beach sibling. But fortunately Neil Diamond -- or any unreasonable karaoke facsimile thereof -- can't compete with the kitchen.
Entrees were prettily garnished with bright steamed broccoli and carrots, as well as orange slices and puffs of shredded radish and carrot, and accompanied by fragrant, sticky white rice. They were also unfailingly generous, particularly a serving of vegetable tempura: sweet potato, carrot, onion, broccoli, and asparagus dunked in a smooth batter and flash-fried to a crackling finish. We enjoyed the inclusion of kakiage, mixed shredded vegetable tempura.
A gigantic bowl of udon noodles in a savory broth proved bigger than our appetites. The long wheat noodles were silky but firm, perfectly cooked. We requested seafood in the soup, an option that's available only with soba (buckwheat noodles), and the house cheerfully made the substitution. We were disappointed with the end result, however. The two small shrimp were the only items in the bowl that we could identify as "real" seafood. Crab stick and fish cake completed the assortment.
Norwegian salmon, two dark red fillets lovingly candied in a light teriyaki sauce, more than made up for fake fish. The edges of the pan-fried fish were crisp but not dry, while the center melted into a moist flake. If only a breast of chicken could have arrived the same way. Boneless, skinless, and sliced into inch-wide pieces, the sauteed bird was so overcooked that not even a layering of dark spicy sauce could improve it much.
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Shrimp sauteed in miso sauce (Ebi misoyaki) was a table favorite, as was the karaoke version of the Elton John/Kiki Dee song that accompanied it. These tightly curled medium-size shrimp were too fresh to have possibly broken anyone's heart. Like a good man, the miso sauce that coated them was sweet, rich enough, and an excellent dresser.
The lobby of the Four Ambassadors is a bit sterile, and a lot chilly. Sushi Hana provides the character, the warmth, and the kitsch. Which is enough to bring my hunger rushing back.
Paquito's fans probably already know that the shopping plaza being built behind the North Miami Beach Mexican restaurant will be its new home. Like Biscayne Boulevard itself, construction on the strip mall seems to have been under way forever. Luis Alonso, the restaurant's owner, says the move will take place as soon as the strip is finished, most likely in the early fall. Best of all, seating capacity will jump from 70 to 200. In its sixth year of operation, it looks like Little Paco has finally grown up.