Babes in Soyland
It's 9:30 p.m., and the blonds have arrived. Up at the sushi bar, three of them are perched in a row like glossy swans, wearing identical halter-tops and white jeans, luxurious Breck-girl hair falling precisely to midshoulder. Framed in a pink arc of neon, against a backdrop of sake bottles on floor-to-ceiling shelves, they look both exotic and completely banal. I can't take my eyes off them.
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.
As it was, we floundered around the menu but came up with a lot of winners. A huge plate of crispy baby bok choy ($6), flash-fried to a texture between a potato chip and cotton candy (if cotton candy were green and salty) was lots of fun. You think there's no way you'll make a dent in it, but the stuff literally dissolves in your mouth; it's like eating bites of garlic- and salt-flavored air. The bulbs, juicy little morsels, have more heft than the leaves. Interesting if way oversalted -- by the time we were through, we were gasping like a couple of carp out of water.
We followed the bok choy with a soup dish of Manila clams ($9), which were something like our native littlenecks. They were steamed in sake, about the size of a thumbnail, and in a broth with hints of floral, mineral, and a tangle of sharp-sweet lime zest. These were delicious, if just occasionally gritty. We ate the clams, then scooped the broth with their empty shells.
At Sushi Room, gyoza ($6) are called "Japanese Ravioli." My dinner guest, a fiercely Sicilian woman, has never left an Asian restaurant without a doggy bag full of gyoza to get her through the next day -- they're the next best thing to fried Italian ravioli -- and she loved these. Sushi Room's gyoza contrast soft and crisp, mild and spicy: lightly fried wrappers surround a dense pork stuffing laced with scallions and a dish of ponzu sauce. They were as good as any we've had anywhere.
A sushi combination platter ($22) -- nine fish plus a California roll -- came with a triple dish of sauces: a passion fruit reduction invented by Franco, light soy, and ponzu vinaigrette. The sushi chef lightly brushes a dab of horseradish paste between fish and rice, packing each bite with an unexpected wallop. Tuna, salmon, octopus, yellowtail, eel, shrimp, mackerel, squid, and snapper were all bracing, tender, and fresh. Our American palates, possibly not attuned to the complexity and subtlety of the well-massaged star of the animal kingdom, couldn't detect the difference between a roll stuffed with kobe beef ($14) and regular old tenderloin. In any case, the meat was more tough than tender.
You can order any of the rolls topped with caviar, price depending on the market. This is a nice touch, but I've read so much about the declining quality and availability of beluga lately -- from pollution, poaching, and illegal harvesting to downright counterfeiting -- that I wouldn't buy it from anybody I wasn't related to. Caviar emptor.
Dessert? Cheesecake tempura ($6.95). What's to say about a cheesecake tempura except that you'll eat it all and live to regret it? This dish has nothing to do with finesse -- it's fried cheesecake, for God's sake, and it comes with a hunk of ice cream drizzled with chocolate syrup. Don't come crying to me later about your waist-to-hip ratio. Those beautiful girls over there picking at their sashimi aren't eating this stuff. But you will.
A final word for those beautiful girls. "Don't say that I'm married," Joey Franco pleaded, only half-teasing, when I telephoned. "You'll ruin my chances." Who ever said the wolf can't run a terrific sushi joint? You've been warned. This Brooklyn boy ain't your dear old grandma.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.