For ethnic food enthusiasts, there's no greater thrill than finding a very small, very hidden eatery -- and no greater compliment than to call it a "hole in the wall." Sushi Deli takes the compliment almost too far. Located on the bottom floor of a nondescript office building, this is one hole in the wall that badly needs a hole in the solid bank of shrubs in front of its window, since some scruffy, hand-painted lettering on that window is the only sign the place exists.
To confuse things a bit more, the lettering mostly says "Japanese Market." A retail outlet for Japanese groceries is what the place had been for several years when, two years ago, chef Michio Kushi opened his sushi counter in the front corner of the little shop. Most of the market is still devoted to retail goods, much of it rare stuff unavailable in Miami's larger Asian markets. For instance, there's sushi-grade tuna, salmon, hamachi, and white fish for those who like to roll their own at home -- not wise to try with just any old raw fish. There's also excellent-quality marbled rib eye ($9.99 per pound), conveniently pre-sliced superhumanly thin for Asian hot-pot dishes.
But shoppers shouldn't get so excited that they miss Kushi's offerings. Sushi lovers may recognize the chef from Miami's well-regarded Sushin, where he worked from 1980. And his original training -- well, don't ask, though I did. "Of course I learn in Japan. Where else? That is very stupid question," scolded the chef.
1412 79th Street Causeway, North Bay Village
305-861-0143. Open Tuesday through Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Sunday noon to 6:00 p.m.
The perfectly prepared rice should have been enough of a tipoff; it may seem easy, but in Japan apprentices spend months, even years, learning to turn out rice balls that are consistently, delicately tangy -- and that don't fall apart. For those who underrate the importance of excellent sushi rice, a Battera roll ($7.50) will serve as a Sushi 101 course. For this traditional Osaka-style sushi, rice was loaded into a square box, layered with seasoned seaweed, then more rice, pressed, topped with ceviche-like marinade-"cooked" mackerel, then cut into squares. The result was as savory as it was beautiful.
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Along with California rolls, et al., Kushi serves up some unusually creative stuff, most of which worked. A salmon-skin salad didn't; rather than the expected strips of succulent grilled skin, the lettuce came topped with an extremely salty and fishy pulverized dust that was definitely in the "acquired tastes" category. More typically terrific was a Marie Roll ($4.75). On the inside, the strong mint/basil flavor of shiso leaves balanced the raw tuna in hot sauce; on the outside, roasted garlic substituted for standard sesame seeds, adding an inventive Italian touch. There's also some uncommon fresh fish that changes according to market availability -- one day pristine striped bass, another day live baby abalone so fresh I was tempted to hit it, just to make sure it wouldn't escape the plate.
Vegetarians can also do well here thanks to a large assortment of makis featuring Japanese veggies, like a pickled daikon (radish) roll, an ume (plum paste) shiso cucumber roll, or a roll containing kanpyo, sweet-marinated strips of a type of gourd renowned for whetting the appetite. There are also a couple of hot dishes: salmon teriyaki and an assertive curried beef stew. Both came with rice, a salad, and edamame (soy beans in the shell), making them a substantial meal for $4.95.
Here's the trick: Don't look for Sushi Deli's unmarked address. Just turn in at the obvious sign to Treasure Island, then immediately into the parking lot on the right. Walk around front -- slowly, or you may miss the joint even on foot. But the hunt is worth it.