In Need of Air

Chef Rudy Irwanto's sushi sparkles, but Oxygen needs more work

To think of restaurant reviewing as an Xtreme Sport may at first seem overly dramatic to readers who are more accustomed to thinking of the genre in terms of, say, rock climbing without ropes, or racing down ice-coated mountains in unprotected vehicles that have no brakes and are the size of a cookie sheet. But consider: At 1998's Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge ten-day Xtreme race in Morocco, what knocked out the biggest slew of competitors -- several whole teams, in fact -- was not climbing the 13,000-foot mountain, rappelling down wild canyons, or galloping vile-tempered camels across the desert. It was gastrointestinal infections.

No question about it. The world of food can be Xtremely scary.

At least the two fit-looking twentysomething women who my partner and I encountered in the bowels of the Streets of Mayfair, while attempting a first visit to Oxygen Lounge, seemed to think so. It certainly was an adventure to find the place, since, first off, it is fashionably unidentified by anything so gauche as a sign, except a teensy unicolor chrome-on-chrome hieroglyph on an elevator. From press releases I knew that Oxygen had a classy elevator entrance, so we all piled in only to stop on floor after floor with no doors opening.

"It must be the rear door that goes to the club," I mused, trying unsuccessfully to pry it open. I'd come prepared with pen and paper, but hadn't thought to bring a crowbar.

"If we kick it, someone might hear us before we starve to death," my partner suggested.

"Omigod," said one of the other women. They both looked as though they wished they'd stayed home with a nice safe frozen pizza. "Just make any door, on any level, open."

Eventually a door did open, onto a dim subterranean parking lot. A well-dressed couple was entering an unmarked door that looked like it led to a furnace room. We followed them, from the car exhaust into Oxygen.

With all the exploring, we were 45 minutes late for a 9:00 p.m. reservation. The delay didn't matter. After crossing our names off a list at the front desk, a hostess started leading us to a table only to stop, shrugging with apparently terminal puzzlement that we expected this procedure. "Well, do you see anywhere you like?" she asked. We assured her we'd find something. She left, relieved.

Carefully avoiding one of those huge group-grope circular beds popular in suburban-glam clubs, that are supposed to suggest "in" sin (but always seem like the fantasy of an aging accountant going through a bad divorce), we settled ourselves behind a coffee table and tried to figure out what was going on. What was supposed to be happening, according to Oxygen's weekly schedule, was the Cirque Samedi, "with dancers, entertainers, and performers galore!" What seemed to be happening was, projected on a side wall, the world premiere of a beer commercial. This was pretty appropriate since lite beer seemed the food of choice among Oxygen's patrons. We appeared to be the only people eating the restaurant/lounge's non-liquid, though also light, Pan-Asian fare.

Which is too bad, since most of the items we tried were worthy of more attention. Sushi especially was praiseworthy, just as fresh as in most of Miami's dedicated sushi bars, and more creative in conception; credit goes to chef Rudy Irwanto. While even common California makis were superior thanks to the substitution of real snow crab for insipid faux stuff, Oxygen's specialty rolls were outstanding.

"Katsu katsu" featured cooked white tuna, masago, asparagus, and scallions inside, thin-sliced avocado and a dot of "spicy" (actually more sweet than hot) mayonnaise outside. The fried seafood inside many popular cooked makis, like dragon and spider rolls, comes crusted, but the usual thin tempura batter almost invariably goes limp when rice-wrapped. Oxygen's more substantial katsu crumbs remained crunchy.

An "O2 roll" played two seafood items, one raw (tuna) and one cooked (lobster), against each other. The interplay would've been more successful had the lobster not been too sparse and too cooked, but the contrast was still spectacular -- particularly with mango, avocado, asparagus, and two "caviars" all thrown into the act. Except for size, the giant "sumo" was similar to the O2 (too similar, really, to be effective on the same plate).

The "hula hula" maki (tuna, pineapple, avocado, macadamia nuts, and pineapple kim chee) sounded too weird to work, but did, due largely to the tropical tang that pineapple added to usually one-dimensional incendiary Korean sauce. In contrast "muy bonito" (tuna, hamachi, salmon, ginger, asparagus, scallion, and rice wrapped in a "tofu crépe") sounded like it would work better than it did. The ginger was the standard pickled sushi side, not fresh ginger; the "tofu crépe" was just a much better name for what's commonly called bean-curd skin. Additionally, as popular as it is these days to mash many types of raw fish into one mega-maki, I've come to believe that this excess is a mistake; it makes fully appreciating the taste and textural differences in the various fish next to impossible.

Hot cooked dishes are limited to a small selection of appetizers, but salmon macadamia, a whole fillet accompanied by wasabi mashed potatoes, was plenty enough for an entrée. Unfortunately the fish was overcooked, the soft nut "crust" and sauce were oversweetened, and the potatoes had not only no horseradish bite but an unpleasantly exploded texture, like potatoes that had been frozen. Salmon cakes were, except for their pink color, indistinguishable from those wildly Pan-Asian-popular pounded shrimp/fish paste balls, whose rather rubbery texture and near-neutral flavor is an acquired taste I've never acquired; however, the two cakes' generous topping of curry-flavored aioli greatly increased their appeal.

More universally accessible were Thai lettuce wraps, triangular cups of iceberg lettuce holding ground beef nam sod that was milder than standard Thai restaurant versions but nevertheless flavorful enough to make the three dipping sauces (a not-tangy-enough nuoc mam, a salty oyster sauce, and a thick peanut potion) unnecessary.

Two tips: 1) Diners who like to see what they're eating should bring flashlights. 2) Diners who do not want to lose their dinners should use the john before leaving home. (Both restrooms, both visits, had trash-littered floors and huge holes in the ceilings.)

While Cirque Samedi's beer commercial was later replaced on the projection wall by a sort of Seventies light show, no circus performers had materialized by the time we left, around 11:30.

When we returned at 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday for Dining with Divas ("a night for women, hosted by women, with complimentary sushi and select martinis for the ladies until 10:00 p.m."), the DJ was male, patrons were the usual boy/girl mix, and if any free sushi or cocktails were being offered to ladies, they weren't us. Which was not because servers could not get through the hordes. Crowds both nights were light. I suspect chef Irwanto will soon be crafting his lovely light bites in a more serious dining venue, one that is less lounge, more restaurant, and more together.

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