Go Fish

According to a recent issue of a la carte, a food-industry newsletter, American consumers choose French restaurants over any other. Though by and large willing to eat sauteed dirt if they're told it's a delicacy, most restaurant critics also admit to preferring a particular ethnicity when it comes to dining out. A fascination with a single fare is natural, even to be expected. What's disturbing is the flip side: If you favor one, you almost certainly disfavor another.

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.

Dessert provided a prime opportunity to clear up at least one myth about Japanese food: You can gain weight eating it, especially if you indulge in Akashi's tempura-battered amaretto cheesecake squares, deep-fried and drizzled with chocolate syrup and dabs of whipped cream, an unusual end to a meal at Miami's newest and most exciting Japanese eatery.

Thanks to a few varieties of parasite that proliferate in improperly stored raw fish, sushi has always been saddled with the reputation of a delicacy for the preternaturally adventurous, men and women who covet the taste and don't worry about ill after-effects. At Hiro Japanese Restaurant and Sushi & Yakitori Bar in the Sunny Island Square Shopping Center in North Miami Beach, risk-takers should note that the danger lies not inside the popular restaurant, where proper refrigeration and a high turnover ensure fresh food, but outside of it. This past December Hiro's owners were mugged at their home; one of the suspects who was later arrested is an ex-Hiro employee. And on a recent evening when I stopped in for a late-night snack, I overheard a female customer making a phone call: Apparently, her car -- and the purse she'd left in it -- had been stolen from the parking lot.

Despite the melodramas, Hiro hums with the activity of a steady, loyal clientele. A decade-long tradition in its two former locations, the restaurant opened brand-new digs on NE 163rd Street east of Biscayne Boulevard this past fall. Known for its soothing jazz soundtracks and almost-round-the-clock hours (till 3:00 a.m.), Hiro is the place to enjoy a number of meal styles, from complete lunches and dinners to cocktail-hour snacks and after-movie munchies.

A wraparound dark wood bar in the center of the restaurant, backdropped by a brick wall, is the prime focus. Penned within the square, Hiro's sushi chefs grill a variety of miniature meat, chicken, seafood, and vegetable kebabs (yakitori), and assemble sashimi, nigiri, and rolls. Our party had no trouble ordering enough to make a satisfactory meal from the yakitori/sushi bar alone.

The average yakitori sword costs a dollar and delivers four to six bite-size pieces, all brushed with the same sweet sauce, on a toothpick-size skewer. Vegetables A firm but tender sticks of zucchini, mushroom caps perfectly grilled A were among the juiciest samples. Shrimp were of medium size and succulent, the clean flavor of the crustaceans enhanced rather than masked by the sauce. But a skewer of squid was a major league chew, prompting a companion to characterize it as "just a pinch between cheek and gum"; squid legs, a separate order, were tough enough to lock our jaws.

A house salad, described as "green," actually contained more red cabbage than lettuce. The salad dressing, a combination of the traditional miso and carrot-ginger, was flat, so insipid that no matter how much we added it seemed to disappear. Miso soup was a savory broth, a superior alternative to the salad.

We continued with several makimono, chosen from the relatively short list. Though Hiro cuts its rolls slightly thinner than other Miami restaurants, the ingredients are of unquestionable quality. A tekka roll was perfectly fresh and delicious, as was a pretty California roll filled with crab stick, avocado, and cucumber, and seeded with masago. A variation on the California, the Hiro roll was served with tender eel on top, definitely a challenging tidbit for the chopstick-impaired. Fingers also might work better on the spider roll, a delicious presentation of fried softshell crab, crisp lettuce, avocado, roe, and mayonnaise. A "salmon c.c. roll" -- cooked salmon coupled with cream cheese and scallions -- was a more interesting version of a bagel roll, which utilizes raw salmon.

One danger rightly associated with Japanese food is the bill. Sushi, which carries a seemingly innocuous price tag for single pieces, can and does add up. I found, though, that none of the restaurants I visited were particularly threatening in this regard. Generally a sushi-centered meal runs about $20 dollars per person. When you dine at Hiro, just don't leave your wallet in the car.

Several incredulous people have already informed me that a Jamaican cooks at Tap Tap, a new Haitian cafe on South Beach. Horrors! Allow me to outrage you further. My uncle, a nice Jewish man, has run his Italian restaurant for the past two decades. And Italian Carlo Ferrari co-owns Coconut Grove's newest sushi enterprise, Sunrice.

The innovative menu is hardly Italian, however. Indeed, one of the only Mediterranean influences we discerned at Sunrice was the basil that freshened the "tropical twist" salad, a cool bowlful of cooked shrimp, raw scallops, tomato, mango, papaya, avocado, and scallion that contrasted the sweet with the acidic and the fragrant with the mild to great effect. A lovely light lunch for a hot summer's day, "tropical twist" is also a refreshing way to begin a meal here in the humid subtropics.

Though we had wanted to follow the fruity seafood with an entree of spicy duck breast, wasabi, eggplant, avocado, and brown rice, we were told that the chef had not shown up for work that day. Because Sunrice is barely a month old, some flak over staff is forgivable; and fortunately we were able to order a couple of hot items anyway, including four greasy but light beef-and-scallion-filled gyoza (dumplings) accompanied by a sharp and sweet vinegar dipping sauce.

"Sunrice chicken tonight," the other item that was served warm, took the notion of cooked makimono a step further. Substituting grilled poultry for fish, the delightfully crisp roll contained avocado, crab stick, cucumber, and asparagus. A variation on this theme is the "son of a beef" roll, which utilizes filet mignon rather than chicken.

Several cold sushi rolls were delicious. A bagel roll was actually a California roll with the addition of cucumber topped with raw salmon and cream cheese. An "Xmas" roll was the same California base rolled with fresh fillets of boiled shrimp on top (this one had a tendency to fall apart). Spicy tuna had been chopped as in a tartare and mixed with avocado, cucumber, and roe, then sealed in rice and seaweed like a regular tekka roll. Two pieces each of asparagus and spinach sushi, both fresh and wonderful, were a palate-cleansing way to finish the meal.

A forward-thinking sushi bar, Sunrice is a bright idea for the Grove and a nice addition to the more formal restaurants that line Commodore Plaza. The restaurant's logo is mimicked throughout the minimalist decor: A row of plates, all inscribed with different renditions of suns, lines the wall behind the sushi bar; Italian designer chairs, done in tones of sand and black, are also decorated with images of the star that lights our world. Despite some glitches, Sunrice has the feel of a restaurant about to become very hot.

The prototypical neighborhood sushi bar, Sushi Rock Cafe is not only the finest fish on South Beach, it's also the most dependable. Locals greet the sushi chefs by name, dine on "the usual," order exotic makimono to go without ever once glancing at the extensive menu (printed on sheet music and sheathed within an old Seventies album cover). And of course, the later the evening, the longer the line. Well, that's South Beach for you.

Ebi shumai were outstanding dumplings, hot and crisp with an almost creamy shrimp filling. A mustard sauce on the side added the perfect zing. The garden salad, which seemed to be everyone's favorite starter, comprised chilled iceberg lettuce, cucumber, tomato, and snow peas seasoned with the two best salad dressings in Miami: rich and sweet honey-miso, and thick, fragrant carrot-ginger.

Sushi Rock offers 25 sushi rolls, rivaling Akashi for breadth of selection. A vegetable roll included an assortment of cooked carrots, spinach, and asparagus, all wrapped firmly in nori (no rice). A spider roll -- fried softshell crab encased in rice with asparagus, avocado, scallions, and masago -- was excellent, as was the South Beach, another cooked roll. Hot battered and fried yellowtail snapper turned the avocado and spicy mayonnaise creamier and delicious, while the cucumber and masago added texture contrast. Though the shrimp in the Boston roll was cooked, this makimono was served cool and fresh, a stuffing of buttery soft lettuce and avocado enhancing the lighter flavor.

If you're tempted to sample a variety of a la carte sushi items, by all means order a boat. Sushi Rock's vessel is gifted in its design and generous in its portions. Tuna, salmon, yellowtail, and mackerel sushi and sashimi were magnificent, free from toughness and prime examples of first-rate, quality fish; crab stick, shrimp, and octopus sushi were good. A cocktail glass of sunomono (slices of conch, octopus, crab stick, and cucumber marinated in rice vinegar) also appeared on the platter, as did a California roll and a bagel roll, nice contrasts to the simpler sushi. Tekka don was a bowl of vinegared rice mixed with shreds of dark green seaweed, sesame seeds, and topped with slices of fabulous raw tuna.

Several hot dishes are worthy of note. Shrimp tempura, which consisted of three giant shrimp plus vegetables including carrots, sweet potatoes, onions, and broccoli, was flash-fried in a light batter and served crisp and greaseless. Chicken teriyaki was a tender breast, cut into strips and presented with broccoli and white or brown rice. And a vegetable stir-fry was a large quantity of cabbage, broccoli, carrots, bean sprouts, snow peas, and onions in a sweetish soy-flavored sauce, also served over rice.

Still, Sushi Rock's main attraction is the superior fish-and-rice combinations from which the restaurant takes its name.

Journalists periodically make restaurant kitchens the subject of their explorations. But what they find A dirt, bugs, unsanitary storage conditions A never surprises those of us who have worked in the food industry. For every exceptionally clean kitchen, a dirty one inevitably exists next door. Sometimes I feel it should be part of my job to take the tour. Other times I feel better off not knowing. And then there's that rare, unfortunate moment when I can visualize exactly the level of kitchen cleanliness simply by what I find -- or, more accurately, by what finds me -- in the dining room.

Dinner at Zen Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar, a slightly rundown Kendall strip-mall establishment whose decor consists of a kimono nailed to the wall and a handwritten list of specials trapped under the plexiglass that covers the scarred tables, was not exactly a transcendental affair. Some cooked dishes, such as oshitashi (steamed cold spinach in a broth flavored with sesame and soy) and crunchy age kaki (shredded vegetables dipped in a tempura batter and deep-fried), were good. Miso soup was sweet and mild, and an order of age nasu, an unbreaded, deep-fried half of a very large eggplant served with the skin on and a rich miso sauce on top, was excellent.

Individual pieces of nigiri, though, were warm -- dangerously so, the salmon stringy and the shrimp soggy. A bowl of fishy tekka don exhibited some of the poorest quality tuna (more gray than red) I've seen in a long time. Even the wasabi lacked spunk and vitality. Any dedicated sushi eater knows that the odds of getting ill from a piece of bad fish increase with each successive bite. Zen made this peril easy to avoid: After carefully sampling the raw fish here, I knew enough not to eat any more.

Cooked seafood posed less of a health risk but exhibited the same poor quality. A seafood and vegetable soup was fully stocked but faintly repulsive, the skin hanging in shreds from the light pink salmon and white mackerel, bones poking out. A small, whole crab dominated this primordial stew, the still-boiling liquid moving its claws in such a way that the poor thing looked alive. A shrimp tempura udon fared little better, the noodles long and appropriately slurpy but the broth lacking zest of any kind.

Even more unappealing was the odor of the restaurant, like the inside of a McDonald's fry-o-lator, which we carried out on our clothes and hair and which I could still identify on my jeans the next day. I knew this smell well from working in a kitchen, but I had never experienced it so directly as a diner. Still, I resolved to give Zen a second chance; I even took along the same companions. Only we didn't get very far. A young roach scurried out of my menu as soon as I opened it, prompting my guests to reveal that they had spotted another roach, this one fully grown, on the table during our previous visit. Needless to say, we didn't stick around to watch this new one grow.

Yes, I am aware that Florida has roaches. But so do New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, and every other big, dirty city in this big, dirty nation. And I won't tolerate roaches on my table in those places, either. I do accept certain "givens" about this climate, and that includes the fact that the very desk upon which I am now writing is infested with sugar ants that mistakenly (I think we'd all agree on this) think I'm sweet. If I saw a palmetto bug, no big deal. They scoot in from outside. As with fleas, you may not be able to get rid of roaches once you have them, particularly if your restaurant is part of a strip mall, and your neighbors, who don't own restaurants, don't care. But you can control the insect population, or at least keep it from reaching your dining room. Even in Florida.

Sunrice, 3195 Commodore Plaza, Coconut Grove; 445-1933. Open Tuesday A Saturday from noon to 4:00 p.m. and from 7:00 p.m. to midnight; Sunday from 4:00 to 11:00 p.m.

Sushi Rock Cafe, 1351 Collins Ave, Miami Beach; 532-2133. Open daily from 5:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m.

Zen Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar, 10855 Sunset Dr; 596-4464. Open from 6:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. every day except Tuesday.


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