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America's hunger for sushi has clearly mushroomed since the 1980s, but I didn't recognize just how thoroughly it had been assimilated into our culture until I saw it for sale at Costco. Of course, as any immigrant can tell you, assimilating and being understood are two different things. Did you know that 50 to 60 percent of all sushi fish we eat has been frozen at some point? This is done to preserve quality as well as rid the fish of any potential parasites. Another fun fact that you are perhaps unaware of: It is against the law to sell sushi fish that hasn't been frozen. Which, if my math is correct, means that 40 to 50 percent of the sushi we eat is illegal. But don't fret over being led away in handcuffs while supping on sushi or sashimi at Shizen, which opened seven months ago on Las Olas Boulevard: The FDA leaves this law to local officials to enforce. Or not.
Shizen isn't just a sushi/sake joint but a splendid restaurant where you can choose from a host of distinctively creative Japanese dishes that reach way beyond the realm of raw fish. As far as looks go, however, it pretty much resembles a sushi/sake joint. When you enter, you'll note a small bar across from a line of cocktail tables with stools. Farther down is a compact sushi bar and beyond that the kitchen. The left half of the 95-seat space is taken up with five large, platformed booths of the take-your-shoes-off-and-sit-on-pillows variety. Regular tables and chairs fill the rest of the clean-lined, wood-paneled room, and there are a few people-watching seats outdoors on Las Olas.
Cold appetizers include carpaccios, tartares, edamame (green soy beans) sprinkled with sea salt, and eight scrumptious slices of "seven spice" tuna tataki, with raw, burgundy-colored centers and crisp edges blackened with piquant seasonings -- one of the tastiest tuna treatments I've had in some time. Shizen's food presentations are gorgeous; this plate centers on a jagged, bright-green shiso leaf and includes a pool of a ponzu sauce of soy, sake, dried fish flakes, and the pronounced sourness of the lemony Japanese citrus known as yuzu.
A brilliantly crafted "ocean foie gras" pâté exhibits a balance of flavor and visual harmony as dazzling as anything you're likely to find at New York's Nobu. Delicately constructed into the shape of a tiny hatbox, the pâté sits in the v of a martini glass with a dot of black tobika caviar on top and a frizzle of leeks on the side; a sauce again described as "yuzu-ponzu" but more lemony than the previous one fills that v with verve. The pâté, made from ankimo(a nice way of saying grouper liver), looks just like real foie gras pâté and has a somewhat similar texture. Alas, the flavor is akin to sardines -- which, though actually quite tasty, have the effect of disappointing a suddenly goose-focused brain.
Hot appetizers are also compelling. Rib-eye toban yakiis a stout cylinder of beef seared and served in a shallow ceramic pot with enoki mushrooms, shishito peppers, and a thin, flavorful broth imbued with sake, butter, and soy. Eight gyoza dumplings plumped with pork and vegetables also arrive in their cooking vessel, a hot skillet fitted into a wooden serving plate.
Flash-fried bok choy was listed, and ordered, as a starter, but I'd recommend holding back and choosing it as a vegetable to accompany your main course. Make sure to try it one way or the other; the mild, mustard flavor of the bok choy is countered with bits of bacon and a swirl of sweet soy sauce. Japanese-style fried chicken nuggets (mentaiko tatsutage) are paired with spicy dabs of cod roe mayonnaise, the combination unusual and not for everyone's taste. Plus, the chicken by itself was the dullest food we sampled -- yet it's precisely the derring-do of dishes such as these that elevate Shizen above its more timid competitors.
Appetizers are so gratifying that it is hardly unreasonable to make a meal of them, perhaps supplemented by some sushi and sashimi. Twenty-seven types of raw fish are available à la carte and 17 house rolls, some particularly creative (like the jalapeño-spiked yellowtail hamachi "pino roll" and "chiba roll" of tuna, potato, masago, and mint leaf). The nori could have been a bit crisper, but the fish was pristinely fresh -- um, make that pristinely fresh or fresh/frozen. In case you're now wondering: shrimp, salmon, octopus, and eel almost always see a freezer; fluke, snapper, and sea urchin usually don't. Tuna and toro can go either way. All these seafoods can be found on Shizen's list.
One more small, dismaying note from the big world of sushi (not just Shizen): The mini-mound of wasabi you dot your rolls with isn't from the wasabi root at all. Rather, it's a paste made of mustard, dry horseradish, and green food coloring. The real deal (expensive) has made it to the States but apparently not yet to Broward or Palm Beach counties.
Shizen has limited main course options: pan-seared tuna steak, miso-marinated Chilean sea bass, whole fried snapper, and three teriyaki treatments (salmon, chicken, and steak) are all grilled and sauced in plum-based teriyaki. We tried the beef, a full-bodied filet mignon served over appropriately crunchy, thinner-than-pencil asparagus stalks -- not bad, but if you're feeling Japanese, this won't really hit the spot.
Fleshy cubes of snapper breaded with coarse panko crumbs and fried to sweet white succulence came cradled in the curved, fried fish frame they'd been removed from. Lemon slices leaned on the snapper, but a promised splash of "hot oil and scallion" went undetected. We asked the waiter if there was any sauce or dip he could bring over, and he obliged with fiery kimchee sauce and a salty/sweet eel sauce that in Japan is known as "anago nitsume" -- traditionally prepared by simmering eels in the same pot of water, day after day, for several months, then reducing the liquid down to a thick black glaze.
Seems to me that a clientele daring enough to try eel glaze or grouper liver might also be willing to brave some exotic sake (pronounced SAH-keh, not SAH-kee), but Shizen serves only four varieties. On one visit, we snubbed the sake and wine lists altogether and requested only tap water with lemon. A subtle expression of dismay crossed our waiter's face, and he exuded a bit of attitude -- until we later ordered drinks, that is, and also put in a substantial dinner order. From this point on, his demeanor noticeably improved. I should also note that he was, from the start, well-informed and adeptly attentive to our needs.
It used to be that a Japanese meal would end with rice, pickles, and tea, but nowadays, one of that country's most popular desserts is tiramisú -- meaning that places like Shizen are pretty much left to their own devices in regard to coming up with finishes fit for the American sweet tooth. Many have responded with innovative fusions such as yuzu crème brûlée, tempura fried cheesecake, or ice creams infused with red bean or green tea. Shizen favors the last approach and offers ginger and mango along with the other two flavors. You can also try "mochi," a trio of red bean, green tea, and ginger ice cream balls wrapped in paper-thin rice dough; the wrappings are typically melt-in-your-mouth soft, but here, they were stiff and chewy. Well, no restaurant is perfect, but Shizen's food is so good, it ought to be illegal.