Miami may be the kind of town where reader restaurant polls regularly cite hokey American-Asian suburban steak chain Benihana as Best Japanese Restaurant, but South Beach, at least, is on the cutting edge of the sushi knife. Between east-west outposts Sushi Rock on Collins Avenue and Yoko's on Alton Road, you can find sushi bars in Thai restaurants, sushi bars in Chinese restaurants, and sushi bars in supermarkets. As yet, no sushi-while-U-swim Jet Ski emporium, but sushi has replaced peanuts in one SoBe club. And in a four-block stretch of Washington Avenue there is a quartet of indisputably topnotch sushi joints. We think of them as being connected by one long strand of seaweed that stretches from Sushi Hana to Toni's Sushi to Maiko and finally to Sushi Yama -- collectively known as Sushi Row.
Why so many? Well, sushi suits the South Beach Zeitgeist. As Faubion Bowers, aide-de-camp to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, wrote of his discovery of the glories of Japanese cuisine during the post-World War II Allied occupation: "Where else in the world can you have so light, so greaseless, so sparkling a set of flavors and textures that ... almost melt as soon as they reach your mouth?" Traditionally served in small, visually appealing portions -- adding up to an average Western meal in quantity, but with a qualitatively greater importance placed on aesthetic effect -- Japanese cuisine is the original decorator food. Healthy food too, with little red meat or dairy fat. And in keeping with the Asian spiritual ideal of seeking harmony with nature, the emphasis is on superb seasonal ingredients served raw (or cooked only briefly). In other words, it's the perfect fuel for SoBe's buff bods and stylish souls.
Hence the real question: Which sushi bar? But why choose just one? In true SoBe style, have it all. With Washington Avenue's four eateries so closely clustered, it's easy to graze, stopping at each place for a course or two. Sampling just a few of a restaurant's personal bests is also in keeping with true Japanese dining; some of that nation's most popular eateries offer a single specialty, with one place serving sushi only, one sashimi only, another all-tofu, and even one spot devoted exclusively to rice with tea poured over it.
Moving from south to north, we start at Sushi Hana, which boasts a full, multipage menu, as do all four Sushi Row places. Sushi Hana is, however, the only one to offer prime, people-watching alfresco dining. Required eating: an order of steamed -- not fried -- shrimp shumai ($6). These half-dozen, juicy, one-bite dumplings, accompanied by a tart soy-citrus ponzu dipping sauce, are lighter than any other Asian dumplings my dining and life partner or I have eaten east of San Francisco. The two-bite pork shumai ($5) are also good; again, specify steamed rather than the more pedestrian fried shumai, which are soggy and tough. Fried-food fans should opt instead for gyoza ($5.50), crescent-shape beef dumplings whose thin, almost see-through skin makes them delicate despite being deep-fried. Finally, raw fish aficionados should consider the toro ($2.75 per piece), a pale, pink, buttery belly fillet of fatty tuna that is -- like finely marbleized prime Kobe beef compared to supermarket round steak -- far more melt-in-your-mouth tender than the usual lean red maguro tuna. It's usually available at Sushi Hana, and rarely elsewhere (except during fishing seasons, when availability of the biggest tuna, with the biggest bellies, makes it easier for chefs who don't want to bother slicing smaller fish to serve this cut).
In season (mainly the fall), the most terrific toro can be found at our next stop, Maiko, the sleekest space in town. It has a real aquarium built into the front vestibule, a papier-mache model of Mount Fuji on the wall, and neon sculptures of an octopus and other denizens of the deep over the sushi bar itself. Here, raw stuff rules. Order a twelve-piece sashimi appetizer ($7.95), specifying that it include hamachi (Pacific snapper) and salmon, the most impeccably fresh in town. If greater variety appeals to you, go for a "boat single" ($22.95): a wooden ship packed with fifteen pieces of sashimi, six nigiri sushi (assorted raw fish slices on wasabi-dotted balls of pressed vinegared rice), a six-piece California roll ("sea leg"-and-avocado, the favorite of sushi virgins), and two spirals of fried whitefish with avocado, rolled in cucumber and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Whew. Maiko features five different sushi-sashimi boats, ranging from the single, which feeds two to four, to the "boat party" ($99.95), intended for five but which could feed the Swiss Army.
Next, a quick hop across the street to Toni's Sushi, where the strong suit is fusion elegance, in both cuisine and decor (under the tatami tables -- normally suitable only for folks fit enough to sit on the floor throughout dinner -- are civilized leg wells). Try the succulent yet suave salmon carpaccio ($8.50), wafer-thin slices of translucent raw fish that arrive in two sauces: underneath, a light, sweet-sour Japanese vinaigrette; on top, creamy-rich mayo-based white dressing typical of upscale Italian restaurant carpaccio.
Sauces are supreme here. The soy-powered pungency of the daikon radish/mushroom/onion topping on tofu steak ($6.25) will make you take back all the mean things you have ever said about bean curd. An appetizer of scallops and pencil-thin fresh jade asparagus ($8), the sort of dish standard American-Asian eateries would turn out as heavy-handed teriyaki, is instead briefly sauteed and then bathed in a sort of light, Parisian-Asian, lemon-soy buerre blanc. The delightfully named Miami Heat ($8) elevates raw tuna sashimi chunks to new culinary heights with its perfectly balanced, subtly sizzling coating of hot sesame oil. And for the final word in fusion, crisp alligator with ponzu sauce ($7) speaks for itself.
Climax your excursion at Sushi Yama, where what the menu terms "exotic special rolls" guarantee eye-opening encouragement for already stuffed stomachs. Every sushi place makes makis (rolls), but most of them deal only with the familiar raw and/or cooked fish and/or veggie classics such as tekka (tuna) or California rolls, plus familiar cross-cultural specialties like the Jewish-Japanese "bagel roll" (smoked salmon and cream cheese rolled in rice). At Sushi Yama there are also original creations imaginative enough to evoke ecstasy -- or possibly to have been inspired by it. For example, there's sushi pizza ($6.50), a concoction based on what's commonly called "dynamite" (fish baked in a mayonnaise-based sauce) and rolled into a majorly messy maki. (It looks more like Mom's tuna casserole than any other pizza we've ever ordered, but it's surprisingly tasty -- and fits in well with the humongous television screen that dominates the otherwise typical blond-wood sushi bar ambiance.) Then there's the volcano roll ($8), sort of a sushi pizza deposited, dripping lavalike, on top of a bagel roll. Or the Mexican roll ($7.50), soft-shell Gulf shrimp rolled with lettuce, tomato, onion, and spicy sauce -- sort of a Japanese taco. And my personal fave, the garden shopper tempura roll ($7.50): "finely chopped all fish mixed," as the menu engagingly puts it, plus roe, asparagus, and mayo -- all tempura-battered and lightly, almost greaselessly, deep-fried. (Trying to make sense of this item's name can be vastly entertaining.)
Creativitywise, Sushi Yama has desserts to match the rest of its menu, and after indulging in maki madness, it is difficult to resist going giddily and totally over the top with fried cheesecake. But resist. The Sushi Yama doughnut ($3), similar to a crunchy Thai or Chinese cruller, is way tastier.
The best dessert of all, however, is a carafe of hot Tokkuri Gekkeikan sake at Sushi Hana ($7.50, and definitely the silky-smoothest of all the traditional rice wines offered at these four restaurants), where our Japanese munchathon began. In South Beach, where the night is always young, the truly sushi-holic can offer a sake toast and simply begin another Sushi Row round.
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Sushi Hana 1131 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-532-1100. Dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m, Friday and Saturday till 2:00 a.m.
Maiko 1255 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-531-6369. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 5:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. Dinner Monday through Thursday and Sunday from 5:00 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday till 2:30 a.m.
Toni's Sushi 1206 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-673-9368. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 6:00 p.m to midnight, Friday and Saturday till 1:00 a.m.
Sushi Yama 1448 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-531-4249. Lunch Monday through Saturday from noon to 3:00 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday till 2:00 a.m.