New Place fo' de Blues
So you think you know all there is to know about Sushi Blues Café? After all, it's a downtown Hollywood institution. For years, it's both served the raw fish-loving community and provided soul food -- of the live blues and jazz type -- to local music buffs. In short, it's been a mainstay in a town where the dining and entertainment establishments seem to change with every lunar cycle. But how much do you really know? Take this quiz and find out:
1. Sushi Blues Café is located on:
a. Harrison Street
b. North Ocean Drive
c. West Dixie Highway
d. Young Circle
2. In 2004, Sushi Blues Café will celebrate its:
a. bar mitzvah
c. silver anniversary
d. first day of kindergarten
3. Sushi Blues Café is owned (with his wife) by jazz musician:
a. Kenny Millions
b. Kenny Pennies
c. Keshavan Maslak
d. both a and c
4. Yozo and Yoshi are the names of the owners':
b. alter egos
5. In terms of food, Sushi Blues Café is best known for:
c. neo-Japanese dishes
6. One of the most favored seasonings is:
d. all of the above
7. Sushi Blues Café offers the following alcoholic beverages:
d. all of the above
8. The average bill at Sushi Blues Café is:
a. the gastronomic equivalent to
b. worth a visit to the ATM
c. special-occasion pricing
d. more than you'll spend on the parking
but less than a ticket from the meter maid
Answer Key: 1. A
Thought you got me on the very first one, didn't you? It's not a largely advertised fact yet, but the restaurant and lounge moved west about three weeks ago from its original location on Young Circle to a spot on Harrison Street. A popular mainstay with a loyal fan base, I predict the business will not only survive the site change but grow in the process, providing Harrison Street the culinary anchor that it needs as badly as a mall requires a well-known department store or two.
Yup, it's true: The café is about to turn 15 years old. No doubt a celebration will be cooked up in the next few months, which partly explains the refurbishment; everybody gets dressed up for a quince. The restaurant's new digs are a huge improvement over the old, dingy, crowded spot it formerly occupied. The generously proportioned room has spacious tables and is muffled by a blue carpet. On one side of the room is a stage and a lounge with couches and chairs in shades of blue, green, and orange; a sushi bar is on the other side. The décor is Zen-oriented, with bamboo poles, framed prints, and large storefront windows.
Kenny Millions is the stage name for Keshavan Maslak, a renowned if controversial figure in the jazz world. After moving to South Florida in 1986, the outspoken saxophonist opened Sushi Blues in 1989 with his wife, Junko Maslak, accomplishing what very few restaurateurs have been able to -- a long-term live-music venue where the crowds go as much for the food as for the music. Millions heads up the Sushi Blues Band, a trio, and the slightly more expansive Sushi Blues Avant Jazz Band, a quartet, which often perform there; when Millions' groups take a break, other national acts fill in. Junko Maslak runs the kitchen and the floor, directing her young, pleasant wait staff, including family members who have grown up in the business.
They're Hollywood's answer to Nobu Matsuhisa, just as inventive and as picky about quality. Since the launch of Sushi Blues, Yozo and Yoshi have been slicing, dicing, and shaving items ranging from a barbecued eel and papaya roll to tuna usuzukuri (long, über-thin slices of raw fish) with jalapeño peppers and lime zest. They're nearly as handy preparing beef dishes such as the filet mignon tataki, a take on the more traditional tuna tataki. I would have preferred the thin slices to be a little more seared around the edges and rarer in the middle, but the flavor of the carpaccio-cut meat was rich and full, complemented by slivers of scallions, toasted sesame seeds, and a vibrant chardonnay-wasabi dip.
Sure, the sushi here is first-rate. And classic soups such as the vegetable udon noodle is filling satisfying stuff, a pleasantly seasoned broth stocked with fresh broccoli, carrots, and slippery buckwheat noodles. But what I'm really attracted to are the funkier, trend-conscious cooked dishes that offer combinations of textures and flavors you don't get in other, more-pedestrian Japanese restaurants. Much like Millions, who dislikes labels on his music that prove confining, the fare here needs to be painted with a broad brush. But it's fair to say that tried-and-true techniques and ingredients are brought to bear in surprising combinations that somehow remain faithful to the cuisine of the nation.
For instance, rather than mundane vegetable tempura composed of a slab of fried sweet potato, a stalk of broccoli, and a spear of asparagus, Sushi Blues features unique interpretations such as tempura eggplant sticks Cajun-style or sweet potato fries. The latter is tremendously successful, the sticks of tender sweet potatoes dipped in tempura batter, fried until just-brown, and served with zesty wasabi sauce and spicy mayonnaise.
Or take the teriyaki options -- they're not the usual steak and chicken but grilled shrimp with onion salsa or baby octopus. We were disappointed on one visit to find that the octopus had left the building. But the "hot hot" squid was still in the house, and our waitress assured us it was a similar preparation. We certainly couldn't argue after sampling it. Al dente pieces of calamari were glazed with a just-sweet slightly zesty sauce that took the teriyaki category to a new level.
Vampires beware -- at least of main courses. The jumbo shrimp, sautéed with shiitake mushrooms and leeks in a garlic-wine sauce, was practically crusted with the less-benign relative of the lily family. The only objection that regular citizens who don't sleep in coffins would have to the dish, however, would be the lack of zucchini, which was billed on the menu but missing from the plate. Garlic appeared again as a primary ingredient in the garlic- and ginger-studded tuna steak, which had a good seared flavor but was too mushy for my taste, as if the fish had been cooked when it was still somewhat frozen. Sides of sweet potatoes mashed with honey and ginger and a mélange of fresh broccoli, onions, and carrots compensated somewhat for the lackluster fish.
Folks, we're talking full liquor bar, and the benefits are obvious -- at least if you stop by the café from 5 till 7 p.m. on weeknights. That's when two-for-one well drinks are poured for happy hour. If you'd rather be brand-loyal, check out the Japanese and other imported beers, an assortment of sakes, and a wine list that could use some expansion but at least has more than chardonnays and merlots.
Put it this way -- it's not cheap. Appetizers and sushi rolls run to $10.75, and main courses top out at $21.95. But the price point is reasonable regarding the quality and consistency of this place. Not to mention, no matter where it's located or how old it gets, the everlasting novelty of Sushi Blues Café. You might walk away from a meal here with your palate jumping from the garlic and your ears ringing from the jazz, but rest assured you won't be feeling anything close to the blues.
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