Pleasure and Pain

Sake Room Sushi Lounge is a chic little restaurant that tries very hard to please ... when it's not trying almost as hard to annoy.

On one hand, you have fitful, graceless service by a haughty young waiter who had evidently decided we were neither beautiful nor Latin enough to merit more than dribbles of his precious attention, while on the other, you have the thoroughly charming owner, Mario Cicilia, and his artist-designer mother stopping by to gracefully smooth over all the rough patches.

You have interminable waits for food in a mostly empty restaurant — 30 minutes for a single tiradito appetizer, 15 minutes more for spicy lobster tempura (which, between order and arrival, had morphed into tempura lobster roll). Yet this is followed by a delightful chili-enlivened calamari salad delivered gratis and with apologies for the delays.


Sake Room Sushi Lounge

275 NE 18th St, Miami; 305-755-0122. Open Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday.

And just when you're wondering, What's up with a restaurant called Sake Room that doesn't have a printed list of its sakes or offer any of them by the glass?, there's Cicilia again, riding to the rescue with a small bottle of excellent Hakutsuru — crisp and silken, tasting vaguely of melons and litchi — presented complements of the house.

If by now you're not sure whether to sit back and enjoy the experience or get up and leave, consider this: Sake Room does have a lot to recommend it. For starters, the décor is attractive — long and narrow, one wall painted a sort of industrial rust, the other a soft gray; cool-funky Indonesian and cool-sleek moderne furnishings, among them a massive communal table hewn from an even more massive hunk of tree; an impossibly high ceiling dangling tubular paper lanterns that resemble the dismembered proboscis of one of George Lucas's Star Wars creatures.

And the food, when it finally arrives, is mostly quite good. The aforementioned tiradito — glistening slabs of impeccably fresh yellowtail, sliced just thick enough to show off their plush, meaty texture, each anointed with a single cilantro leaf and tiny crimson button of sriracha — was delightful. The fish was so tasty it made up for an overly acidic lemon-yuzu sauce.

The mistakenly delivered lobster roll was no big deal — a generic-tasting combo of fried stuff with crisp stuff and avocado, wrapped in rice and nori, though the tangy yellow tomato sauce swirled with verdant chive oil that arrived alongside was damn near inspirational. But if the lobster roll was a yawner, the yuzu hamachi roll was a knockout, a subtle riot of flavors that paired the rich, lemony, scallion-flecked chopped fish against the exotic, beguiling taste of shiso.

Sake Room's selection of nigiri sushi is limited, but the quality of the fish is high; the jumbo sweet shrimp is a blast of almost candied seafood goodness. We finally got our spicy tempura too, in the form of shrimp rather than lobster. Though the panko-dusted and fried crustaceans weren't exactly what we were expecting as "tempura," they certainly were delicious, even more so given their drizzle of piquant yuzu mayonnaise.

Better stick with seafood, though, at least if an entrée of beef teriyaki was any indication. Tough chunks of meat that could stop a rifle bullet at 50 paces were slathered with a sauce so cloyingly sweet it would have been insufferable over ice cream. Which, by the way, is available for dessert. We had to try the citrus panna cotta, though, which turned out to be a round of tart, rubbery "cooked cream" in a lovely fresh fruit "soup," a mixture of pleasure and annoyance not unlike Sake Room itself.


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