The Good Raw Deal

The idea of eating raw fish is anathema to many Americans. Some years ago I was among those who vowed never to try it. But when it comes to food, my self-imposed prohibitions often mean very little. And so it was with sushi. I was persuaded by three enthusiastic lovers of the stuff to sample a slice of tekka maki.

In a word, it was grotesque. The combination of flavors A vinegared rice, beef-red raw tuna, wasabi (a root paste similar to horseradish), and nori (the sea vegetable A an algae, actually A in which some sushi is wrapped) A overwhelmed me with nausea. Even more excruciating was the sight of my friends devouring their portions. I completely lost any pretense to appetite, something that hadn't happened to me since my first dismemberment of a lobster.

Today I am a devout fan, not only of lobster but of all kinds of sushi, a development no stranger than the taste for red wine I acquired only after chugging down then throwing up two bottles of it on the Duomo in Florence.

Tasting sushi again after that initial debacle was not so much an adventure as it was an example of personal bravery. The adventure came much more recently: I returned to the ill-fated Bakery Centre in South Miami after the first restaurant I reviewed there (Tivoli Grille) went out of business just prior to publication. Undaunted by that bad omen, I came back to sample sushi at Kaori, and I left feeling optimistic that it will still be in business as you read this.

Kaori has transformed the echoing mall into a warm if noisy retreat for sushi devotees. Thanks to owners Yoji Iwanura and Yozo Natsaui, formerly of Kampaii, the elephantine structure of the Bakery Center now receives more business by night, it seems, than it does by day. Even at nine o'clock on a recent Tuesday evening, the third-floor tables, set under the striking spoked dome of the roof and overlooking the Miami Youth Museum, were still turning over.

The reasons for this success are not difficult to ascertain. Kaori's menu is among the most extensive I've read. Eighty-four appetizers are offered, excluding a la carte sushi and sashimi, outnumbering dinner entrees two-to-one. This is a concept similar to Spanish tapas, and encourages the diner to make a meal from many smaller dishes as opposed to one large plate. It also enables the indecisive to order both hot and cold foods without resorting to prearranged dinner combinations.

If combinations appeal, however, Kaori has that market covered. American favorites such as sushi, teriyaki, and tempura arrive with rice and a choice of miso soup or green salad, for a mostly midteens price tag. I enjoy the idea of the sushi combinations like the hosomaki combo A one California roll, one J.B. roll (salmon, scallions, and cream cheese), and seven pieces of nigiri (balls of seasoned sushi rice with toppings). For a dollar or two less than the hot arrangements, it's a filling A if not thrilling A meal.

The drawbacks to such a tremendous menu are worth noting. Ordering is done by number, which could discourage the waitstaff from learning menu items as well as they should. The food-delivery system also requires a bit of reworking. Three different orders were brought to our table, and none of them were ours. Though we would have gladly consumed any of them, I suspect the hungry patrons who had ordered them would not have been pleased.

I know I would have been a bit unhappy had my order of ebi-shumai (shrimp dumplings with mustard sauce) gone astray. Though the dumpling skins were a bit tough to the teeth (there may not have been enough water or vegetable stock added to the dough; too much flour makes it stiff), the interior shrimp mixture was creamy and as steamy as the recent weather. In fact, every item we tried (except for the green salad, which tasted like it had been refrigerated) was made to order and served immediately from the kitchen A randomly. In an amusing reversal of what we normally expect, the sushi rolls we ordered actually were the last to arrive.

Unfortunately our other appetizer, the mixed shredded vegetables tempura, could have never arrived and we wouldn't have missed anything. The fritterlike patties tasted purely of batter instead of the skinny shreds of vegetables, and the oil in which they were fried seemed old. The oil used for tempura should be a light, cold-pressed vegetable oil A safflower or sunflower, for example. If not overheated and if stored properly, it can be reused. A fresh supply would have worked better here. The dip sauce, which might have compensated for the nearly rancid oil, tasted neither of soy sauce nor of mirin (a sweet, thick rice cooking wine). Often dip sauce for tempura is begun with dashi, a stock made from the seaweed kombu, and flavored with soy, mirin, Japanese radish, and grated ginger. Disappointingly, none of these flavors was discernible.

The main dish of yakisoba (sauteed buckwheat noodles with vegetables and, for two dollars extra, chicken) had no problem with flavor. This excellent preparation was highly and appropriately seasoned (noodle dishes can at times be bland). The Japanese are expert noodle-makers, and soba noodles, popular in the north country, have been brought south to Kaori with great success. Soba is also available in a cold dish with a sauce for dipping. Udon, the familiar and chewy wheat noodles, are also offered in hot broth and with shrimp tempura. Generous portions make these noodle dishes the best bargains on the menu.

Judging by the many attractive looking orders that drifted by our table, though, sushi appears to be the most popular item. We sampled two creative makimono (rolled) combinations, the Beauty and the Beast roll and the Miami roll.

The Beauty and the Beast roll suggested neither Celine Dion nor Walt Disney to us. I assume the beauty/beast appellations refer to the ingredients. Half the roll was tuna and veggie, the other half was eel and veggie. But I have no idea which half was the beast. It all looked beautiful to me A large slices sprinkled with sesame seeds and garnished, on the eel's portion, with a sweet, clingy sauce. The sea creatures shared space with fresh garden vegetables, including carrot, cucumber, and asparagus, all of which tend to cut any fishy taste, lending fresh air to the whole affair.

The Miami roll was interesting for its warmth. Yellowtail snapper was fried then stuffed in rice along with avocado, cucumber, and a spicy mayonnaise. The entire procedure was accomplished so quickly the fish retained the heat from the fryer, helped in part by the insulating rice. Garnished with roe and sesame seeds, these large coins required the use of fingers rather than chopsticks in order to keep them from falling apart.

As for the nigiri, avocado and asparagus are offered in the half-dollar range. Local fish such as snapper, grouper, cobia, and wahoo sell for a dollar. Green mussels, somewhat unusual in these parts, are also available and can be ordered cold with ponzu sauce or steamed with sake. Other atypical appetizers include a marinated abalone and seaweed dish, marinated jelly fish, fried soft-shell shrimp, and the startling cheese maki A American cheese wrapped in gyoza, a papery dumpling skin.

One type of nigiri, however, I would never order: the mini-single sushi combo, "for ladies." Does this mean a gentleman with a small appetite is effeminate? Does this mean a woman who orders the regular sushi combo is less feminine? Call me dyke or bitch and get it over with. I'm tired of people telling me I should be dainty.

Unlike most Japanese restaurants of my experience, Kaori allows you the option of creating your own roll. Ingredients from which to choose include, among others, salmon tempura, kampyo (gourd strips), conch, sprouts, and a variety of crabs: snow, soft shell, and Alaskan king. Perhaps the most intriguing addition is the one that ensconces the French roll A a crepe. Now that, mes amis, truly is an adventure.


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