Sushi on the Boulevard
So you're a couple of New York guys who have just relocated. It's earlier this year. It's lunchtime. You've been doing something-or-other in Miami Shores, and are cruising south past some of the increasingly snazzy neighborhoods bordering Biscayne Boulevard, like Belle Meade and Morningside. You are real hungry. And what you are hungry for is the sort of stuff snazzy folks in such neighborhoods like. Mostly, sushi.
You are not finding any. What do you do? You zip a few miles over the 79th Street Causeway to the beach, head south to the area where there's more uncooked fish than live in the sea, and ... whaddaya, nuts? We coulda stayed in New York for that kind of schlep. Whoa, stop the car, is that a "for rent" sign in front of that cute cottagelike vegetarian place called Suzanne's? Yesss! A chef? No problemo! We know a chef! Not exactly a sushi chef, but he's got imagination -- which is the key thing here. After all, we've never run a sushi restaurant. Let's do a show!
According to owner Anthony Sperduto who, with partner Frank Chelley, works the room with the festive charm of a TV emcee warming up a live audience, that's pretty much the straight story, with a few embellishments; the pair, for instance, are not total restaurant ingenues -- if you count operating a pizza parlor on Long Island. But Sushi Box is basically an impulsive labor of love. It is also, after several months of operation, yet a work in progress.
The menu is still shaking down, as are the hours, not to mention changes to décor; most notably there are plans to enclose the restaurant's large but currently too-exposed-to-be-inviting outdoor area with landscaping. And as for service, there was on one recent Saturday night exactly one poor harassed (but admirably sporting) waiter/jogger serving a packed house of roughly three dozen people inside plus three or four outside tables.
Additionally some of the food sampled on two recent visits was neither quite as described on the menu nor quite what it could be with a bit more refining. A pearl roll, for instance, sounded most intriguing, with ingredients not found in average Japanese restaurants: smoked oysters, onions, spicy sprouts, and sake rolled in a white soybean wrapper. The latter was especially appealing to a seaweed hater at my table. It contained no onion, but lots of unmentioned carrot. And there may have been sake somewhere, but the roll's vastly predominant taste was the smoked oysters -- which was fine if you like those little smoked jobs in the can, as many diners sitting around me both times obviously did; the roll seemed extremely popular. Personally, though, I was hoping for some subtler sort of house-smoked preparation.
Also sounding better than it tasted was a Tequila Sushi Roll, described as a mouthwatering combo of salmon and tuna marinated in tequila and rolled with spicy sprouts, jalapeños, a pinch of salt, and a squeeze of lime. Unfortunately the only discernible taste was a totally palate-killing jolt of fiery red sauce that seemed to have been substituted for the jalapeños (at least there were no green peppers of any sort in evidence).
A Buddha Roll featured, along with avocado and gobo (Japanese burdock root, an earthy, slightly sweet sort of celery/potato cross that is used as a garnish in many Sushi Box dishes), some overcooked yakitori chicken that suggested there could be a perfectly good reason why sushi is traditionally fish-centered. The poultry was very dry, very heavy. But another nonfish maki, the Very Veggie Roll, was wonderful. Vegetable sushi is almost always bland, but this inspired combination of atypical veggies (including mushrooms and the same naturally spicy sprouts used in the above rolls) was highlighted by a ginger sesame vinaigrette much more subtle than the usual wasabi/soy sauce.
All the above come from a list titled Foo Foo Sushi; stylishness is one thing Sushi Box has down to perfection. There are also respectable versions of most of the regular sushi suspects: a generously stuffed Hamachi Scallion Roll and a crawfish/caviar Cajun Roll were both good, despite the mild spicy mayo on the latter. But the eatery's playfully picture-perfect original creations are what make Sushi Box not just another sushi bar. Especially impressive was a braised tofu steak, a silky tofu rectangle whose "miso glaze" was actually two beautifully contrasting sauces, one dark and sweet, the other a tan miso/ginger potion. Its accompanying "bed of baby bok choy" was actually one big babe, steamed just right but in need of either a knife or a presentation that cut the head into chopstick-manageable pieces. Poke-Poke (noodle-garnished diced tuna, scallion, and tomato on a bed of baby greens big enough to make it a main-dish salad) would have been a huge hit had it not been marred by a very salty ponzu dressing.
Asian ceviche got a mixed reaction: Fans pointed out that the conch was nicely tenderized, the sprouty salad bed was substantial, and the slightly sweet wasabi lime dressing was far superior to normal, simplistic sushi-bar sauces; naysayers noticed that the promised shrimp were absent, the "crab" was surimi, and the squid rings subbed for octopus were tough enough to serve as moped tires. But everyone agreed that a multi-item Small Sushi Box -- containing a sesame-dressed salad of greens, tomato, scallions, and oranges; kosher-salted steamed edamame beans; tuna, salmon, and whitefish nigiri; a California roll; and an "Asian fruit salad" with fresh lychees -- was both a beautiful presentation and, at just $9.95, a great deal for light eaters.
Personally I felt that despite the place's name, it was cooked-food fans who really luck out at Sushi Box -- namely those ordering yakitori. Yawn? Yup, usually. But here the stuff is fabulously festive, each á la carte two-skewer order served with three contrasting dipping sauces: hot pepper, mustard garlic, and ginger soy. There are a dozen and a half choices, with onion, some strange grilled hard-boiled quail eggs, shiitake, tofu, and sirloin/garlic among the best.
Surprise standout was salmon skin with asparagus, succulently marinated salmon skin rectangles with fresh vegetable spears.
For dessert, chocolate sushi, sweet sticky rice rectangles topped with chocolate and surrounded by a smooth coconut creme anglaise, was a hoot. And for washing it all down, there are beers and serious sakes, though judging by the carafes on tables most diners favor sakjitos, minty sake mojitos that, in terms of alcohol amount, felt little more formidable than lemonade but were, again, fun.
Sushi Box is a show that still needs some rehearsal -- possibly even some minor script rewrites -- but judging from its respectable-sized crowds so far (including some local-celebrity partiers), diners will be happy to give this good-time place the time it needs
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