Fort Lauderdale's Tokyo Blue Could Exercise a Little Restraint
Executive Chef Mai Ponrathorn shows off his popular Pad Thai in front of the sushi bar. Click here to see more photos from Tokyo Blue
I have to wonder if the people behind Tokyo Blue have ever heard of the Japanese concept of ma. It's the idea that, in art as well as in life, what you leave out is equally as important as what you add. Think of ma as negative space — the tasteful exclusion of elements that leads to a better, more informed whole.
Of the myriad elements in play at Tokyo Blue, a 4-month-old restaurant in Fort Lauderdale's Ocean Manor Resort, ma is certainly not one of them. There's no restraint exercised in the restaurant's sprawling menu of standard Japanese and Thai fare. There's little subtlety in the nightclub atmosphere the space exudes. Underneath all that pomp is a fairly promising restaurant.
Tokyo Blue arrived in July as a much-needed update to the aging resort. On weekends, Ocean Manor's poolside tiki bar brings in a young crowd that fills chaise lounges and stays for the pig roast. Galt Ocean Mile is otherwise a haven for retirees and vacationing families, and turning Tokyo Blue into a clubby, Euro-style lounge is an attempt to keep the tiki customers coming back at night. The restaurant sits to the right of the resort's main lobby. Unsurprisingly, the first thing you see is the bold white lettering for "VIP" entrance that leads to the bar. Continue a dozen paces and you'll find the "civilian" route: a broad set of double doors that open to the cool-blue lounge area and the adjoining restaurant.
Fitting with the name, nearly everything inside is draped in blue. The lounge to the right and the sushi bar to the left are outfitted with frosted ice bar tops glowing with sapphire backlighting. The concrete floors are a cool shade of gray too, and the diluted white walls are accented with sections of aquamarine glass that seem to shimmer in the light. Taken as a nightclub, Tokyo Blue looks vaguely attractive. The problem is that those clubbier design elements don't mesh with the antiquated-looking Asian knickknacks strewn around the restaurant. It's as if, at the last moment, someone decided that the place didn't look enough like a dusty old Chinese restaurant and tossed in a few Buddha statues to remind the clientele just where they are eating.
The menu has the same effect. At four pages long, this weighty tome does have a few intriguing dishes to choose from, like Maine lobster baked with shichimi (a zesty Japanese spice blend) and Dover sole lifted by citrusy yuzu vinaigrette. Sadly, it's crammed with so many choices that simply skimming through it requires a hefty time commitment (or for the local residents, a time share). Worse, most of it is the same sort of standard Japanese and Thai dishes you'll find at any neighborhood sushi restaurant in South Florida.
There are almost two dozen appetizers ranging from common (edamame, steamed dumplings) to off-kilter (tempura-fried jalapeño poppers filled with cream cheese and shrimp). Beyond those is a ubiquitous array of Thai salads made with green papaya and shrimp or grilled beef tenderloin with cucumber, and typical soups like tom ka gai and miso. Custom-made sushi rolls number in the dozens: yakitori, tepanyaki, and something called toban yaki (a Japanese stone "skillet" that sizzles like a platter of fajitas), and each has a choice of sauce (teriyaki, Thai peanut, and Peruvian "anticucho"). And in case any bases were missed, there are also the ever-present panang and green curries, ginger and black bean sauce dishes, and pad Thai.
I suppose all this would be fine if Tokyo Blue weren't aspiring to be more than your neighborhood Japanese restaurant. But the prices for even the standard dishes are clearly set to match its glitzy nightclub décor. Take the tom yum soup we sampled — sure, the flavors of lemongrass and kafir lime leaf were well-balanced. But there was literally no discernible difference between this version clocking in at $9 and what you might find at any corner Thai joint (save the misappropriated jumbo shrimp tossed in to up the value). The same could be said of the stone crab roll ($20) we tried. Glopped with spicy mayo and set among cucumber and avocado, the otherwise sweet, luxurious flavors of that precious crab inside had been quashed. There's not a sushi chef in town who couldn't do at least an equal job here.
The sad part is Tokyo Blue's sushi chefs are a fairly talented bunch. The fish sourced by the restaurant is varied and fresh, with wild salmon and local snapper sharing space with exotic options such as hotate (live scallops) and tai. An omakase (chef's choice) course that runs the gamut of options costs a whopping $82 a head. If you want the same effect at a fraction of the cost, simply sit at the sushi bar and ask the chefs for their recommendations.
We did just that during one visit. In turn, our sushi chef, a short guy with a wide smile, set us up with a collection of assorted sashimi seared lovingly with a kitchen torch. The best among them: wild salmon ($4 per piece) glistening and dewy with just a hint of olive oil and yuzu; and a bouncy, rare scallop ($4.50), cut into sections and sprinkled with peppery shichimi powder. We also gushed over slivers of thin-cut Pacific yellowtail ($4.50), curled into a wispy roll and set alight with slivers of jalapeño and sharp ponzu sauce. Tai ($4.50), a delicate white fish cut into wide half-moons, was given heft and weight with more of that peppery powder coating the scallops.
Entrées at Tokyo Blue range from $18 (that for the aforementioned curry dishes, which can be upsold to the $30s by adding lobster or duck) to an $86 USDA prime rib eye cut to a cool 34 ounces. The ultra-expensive options don't end there — a few fish dishes such as whole fried yellowtail and Dover sole price out about $35, and you can even splurge on Japanese Kobe beef at $25 for a three-ounce portion prepared any of three ways (seared tataki-style, grilled on skewers, or served on one of those searing-hot toban yaki skillets). The menu seems to contradict itself here too: It lists Kobe beef under the toban yaki section for $42 an order. A quick question to our waiter revealed the latter to be a larger portion — be sure your server gets it right before ordering.
Among the standard curries and pad Thais are a few dishes that really stand out. The toban yaki is in fact excellent, a sizzling-hot platter bubbling with onions and mushrooms plus beef, salmon, or tofu ($14 to $28). But nothing we tried was better than a beautiful fillet of sea bass served with balsamic teriyaki sauce ($27). The sizable fillet was seared to a lovely crisp on one side, remaining moist and tender throughout. Under it was a pool of thick, black sauce made from aged balsamic vinegar, deep and rich as an onyx-lined pool. And instead of being tart or overpowering, the addition of the vinegar was smooth and sweet — it paired wonderfully with the meaty fillet as well as with the leafy bok choy plated smartly on the side.
If only Tokyo Blue had the courage to sharpen its focus toward well-executed plates like that sea bass, it would have a future in Fort Lauderdale. Of course, it would also have to clear up a few other issues: For one, the incessant Euro-dance music blaring over the loudspeakers during dinner hours grows pretty wearisome after a half hour or so. In the end, it's not that Tokyo Blue is a bad restaurant. With a little ma, it could be so much more.
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