By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
But everybody looks fabulous at Sushi Room: A Sake Lounge (this restaurant has a name plus a subtitle, like a blockbuster or a master's thesis). The perfect light seems to emanate from all directions without a source. Heaven should be bathed in a glow like this; I hope if I ever get there, it turns out to have such a divine sake list. This little 14-table room is beautifully composed. Owner Joey Franco hired a New York designer to pull together the white Louis Vuitton slipcovers and tabletops, ethereal fluorescent lighting, flat-screen TVs running simultaneous video clips, and a DJ booth floating above it all. The total effect is spare, à la mode, and very, very cool.
Is that a problem? Franco hopes not. "One of the things I keep hearing is we're too ahead of the times for Hollywood," he says. "You might find a place like this on South Beach, but they tell me Hollywood isn't ready. But a lot of new restaurants are opening here, and we have to stay one step ahead to compete." Staying ahead includes keeping the kitchen open until 2 a.m. and offering specials to locals "in the biz": wait staff and barbacks who stream in after their own restaurants close.
The man knows what he's doing. Franco and brother Tommy have been plying Hollywood families with chicken Marsala and cannoli for 14 years. If you push through the glass doors to the right of the banquettes at Sushi Room, you'll find yourself in Mama Mia, the restaurant Joey Franco opened at age 19, fresh off the road from New York, where he'd trained in family restaurants owned by uncles and cousins. Mama Mia is as deep, dark, and red as Sushi Room is all shimmering light -- it's like stepping from the bosom of angels into the arms of the devil. This classic Italian place on Young Circle has been gradually redesigned over the past few years -- the trite Italian-flag motifs replaced by a more upscale look. It's the same spaghetti and meatballs menu, only the crowd's a little younger, with a little more edge. Maybe Hollywood's a lot readier than the naysayers say.
A reward for Franco's persistence came recently in the serendipitous form of an accomplished chef, Teruhiko Iwasaki. Iwasaki was one of the original sushi wizards at Nobu in Manhattan; he'd moved to South Florida, and a friend tipped off Franco that the Japanese maestro was looking for work. Franco scooped up Iwasaki and his brother to take over the kitchen at Sushi Room, which opened four months ago. They've put together a menu that's one part familiar and two parts inspired, at prices low enough to lodge fear and loathing like an ice pick in the hearts of their competitors.
You can go to Sushi Room and order the same old California rolls ($4), gyoza ($6), and edamame ($5), if that's your bag -- you can even dine off the menu from Mama Mia. But if you're more adventurous, you can sup like a Rockefeller scion on kobe beef tataki ($12 per ounce), beluga caviar with jumbo lump crab meat ($22), foie gras mousse roll ($8), and a shrimp pizza finished with 18-carat gold leaf ($10). Between the hash and the flash, you'll make some intriguing discoveries. A lobster salad is tossed in cilantro dressing ($12), oysters are wrapped in shredded phylo and topped with caviar ($8), and garlic sprouts are sautéed with sliced rib-eye steak ($7). Whole fish, simmered or steamed in sake or fried in vinaigrette soy, are priced by the pound. Kobe beef or lobster with seafood ($22 to $35) are grilled on a hot stone. A hot-pot dinner for two or more, with beef, vegetables, and tofu ($38) or mixed seafood ($42), can be ordered 24 hours in advance.
On a recent night, good-looking women started arriving around 9 p.m. ("It's ladies' night, sort of," one waitress advised the tanned, toned, and tucked girls at the table next to ours), and the menu was big enough to make choosing a meal a challenge. Our waitress, pretty and shy, wasn't much help with the sake list or the menu; she had "petrified new girl" written all over her. The closest she came to helping me make sense of the sakes was to lean over and read aloud the description on my menu: So I blindly ordered "Choya Umeshu with Fruit" ($15) hoping it wouldn't be too sweet. The 15 cold sakes can be bought by the bottle; 12 of these are also served, for about half the price, in a bamboo flagon. Those bamboos hold a lot of wine -- enough to get one person sloshed, perfect for two to share.
It turned out that the Choya Umeshu was pretty sweet, an exceedingly lovely and delicate pre-dinner drink but not ideal to accompany a meal. If I'd been able to pry my eyes away from the clientele for two seconds, I would have noticed that the menu recommends specific sakes for each dish. I could have chosen my meal exclusively around, say, a Yatsushika sake ($23 for a bamboo, $40 for a bottle). This organizational strategy would have simplified things: I would have ordered shrimp cake, tuna tartare, grilled Japanese pork sausage, a sushi platter with blueberry rice and sliced fish, and a stone grill of lobster seafood. I highly recommend this method for the sake-challenged.