The Flawed Couple
Years ago my family frequented a restaurant that was actually two in one. Same owners, same kitchen, but the right side served Chinese food, the left side Japanese. Moreover, what you ate depended upon where you sat. If you were dead-set on swinging, you could sometimes persuade a waiter to bring a sushi appetizer instead of won-ton soup with your moo goo gai pan. But most staffers were reluctant to cross the border, and most patrons dined on one cuisine or the other.
Lately I've noticed a trend toward doubling up in Miami, particularly on Asian foods. Like the restaurant I remember from my youth, China Tokyo on South Dixie Highway is Chinese/Japanese. Chiung Yu on NE 167th Street serves Korean and Japanese. And a new little place called Chopsticks House on Old Cutler Road does both Chinese and Thai.
The motivations for going bi are varied. In some cases the chefs and/or owners are of mixed ancestry. Others want to appeal to a wider audience. One outmoded way of thinking that still seems to prevail is that familiar dishes (usually Chinese) will offset the restaurant's more exotic, and therefore less marketable, national orientation. Regardless of the reason, certain obvious elements in Asian cuisines do correspond to each other, making a Thai/Japanese or Korean/Chinese experience not entirely schizophrenic.
At a North Miami restaurant called Dino to Sushiya and Jazz Cafe, however, those obvious elements are missing. Formerly Dino Too, an offshoot of the decades-old Italian stalwart Dino's on 71st Street in Miami Beach, the restaurant fractured last month into multiple personalities when owner Josephine Carlozzi took in Japanese partner Anunya Inhorm. Not only does Dino to Sushiya serve two utterly different cuisines, but the restaurant also features a full liquor bar side-by-side with a sushi bar, a jazz piano (soon to be a three-piece combo) in the dining room, and a sizable sports lounge upstairs. And although it doesn't matter which of the establishment's 150 seats you occupy, the long and involved menu, arranged so as to separate "East" (Japanese) from "West" (Italian), makes it difficult to decide on a direction. Of course, you don't have to decide; mix-and-match is perfectly acceptable. But offering drastically dissimilar preparations is a risky proposition, given how difficult it is to operate just one eatery. After nearly two months of this culinary dichotomy, it's impossible to say whether Carlozzi and Inhorm are destined for success. Generally, the Italian dishes worked better than the Japanese; taken as a whole, the experience remains uneven at best.
We started with an odd mix of Japanese and Italian appetizers. General manager George Acevedo calls this "having the best of both worlds," and says his customers really seem to like the option of ordering from two cuisines. We found it confusing, as did our Japanese waitress, who was polite and helpful but had just a touch of difficulty with the unwieldy (for her) names of the Italian dishes. That might help explain the clams posillipo appetizer we were served instead of the baked clams we had ordered. We didn't mind, though. The small clams were tender amid a winy, briny broth spiced with a good dose of garlic and black pepper. We thought the liquid would be perfect for bread-dipping; and it was, eventually, when the rolls we requested arrived.
A fried mozzarella appetizer was crisp and satisfying, the four sticks of flattened cheese supple and chewy within. Although the breadcrumb coating showed no hint of grease, the real treat was the accompanying marinara, tangy and chunky with sections of plum tomatoes and obviously homemade.
A third starter, this one of Japanese origin, amounted to culture shock. The "Big Eye," a rose constructed of raw tuna slices, was served in a cocktail glass. Unfortunately this rose was a sad specimen, its form bearing no similarity to a flower and its content stringy and unappealing.
The soup-and-salad course was as close as the cultures came to a merger. (Both come with all Italian entrees; soup or salad comes only with selected Japanese main courses. Generally one should go West for quantity at Dino to Sushiya: Complete Italian meals, which at an across-the-board price of $13.95 are outstanding values, also include coffee and dessert.) Preprepared salads comprised the standard iceberg lettuce, cucumber, and tomato with chickpeas scattered on top -- a complement if the main course is Italian; a detraction if it is Japanese. Honey-miso and carrot-ginger dressings, both too sweet, tasted strange with chickpeas. A creamy garlic, also on the sweet side, fared better.
Minestrone, a fine version containing at least five different kinds of beans, was the lone choice for the Italian dinner. One of my companions substituted miso soup for it anyway, with overly salty, unsatisfactory results. For an entree she had chosen a Cornish hen (billed as a capon on the menu) chopped into sections and presented with sweet Italian sausage and sauteed olives and mushrooms. Potent with garlic, the earthy, dense, almost fruity mushrooms and the sausage were tumbled about the baked hen, which was too dry in some places but featured a nice, crackling skin. A side dish of spaghetti with marinara sauce rounded out the meal.
A squid preparation was better, soft body meat sliced into pliant rings on a plate that was rife with stewed plum tomatoes and capers. The serving was so big, in fact, that the spaghetti side dish seemed like an afterthought. On the East side the kitchen will grill any fish -- including salmon, dolphin, tuna, and grouper -- basted in a flavorful teriyaki sauce. We ordered the grouper, a delicious fillet accompanied by white rice.
It wasn't practical to survey all the sushi offerings -- and there are many -- but what we sampled didn't inspire us. A California roll was average, the combination of crabstick and avocado neither appetizing nor awful, but a bagel roll was foul with sour-tasting cream cheese. A cooked fish roll was covered with a thick sauce flavored with kim chee seasoning, an unexpected addition that had not been listed on the menu and that no one in our party liked.
The house dessert, a flavorless white rum layer cake that tasted not a drop like its signature ingredient, was free with the Italian meals. Tiramisu was also available, but after kim chee and crabstick we couldn't fathom the thought of espresso-tinged mascarpone and cocoa-dusted lady fingers.
The cockroach that visited during dessert apparently wasn't concerned about East vs. West; it was headed up the wall next to me. If the proprietors are considering a bug patrol, they might also invest in rut control: The dimly lighted parking lot, which we explored by mistake after entering the wrong way and bypassing the valet, is a challenge to your chassis, especially when the valet has an audible penchant for speed and squealing brakes. Thrills and chills aside, the multiple personalities of Dino to Sushiya and Jazz Cafe could do with some therapy.
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