What most people know about Japanese food they could cram into a chopstick case, which isn't to say it's their fault. For a cuisine so rooted in tradition, restaurants that claim to serve it have strayed pretty far from the source material. Blame the ubiquitous strip-mall sushi joint — those nearly identical eateries slinging low-grade tuna by the caseload and farm-raised salmon the color of bad wallpaper. Or better yet, blame the California roll. If there's a more appropriate summation of a cuisine stripped of its value than a rice-smothered tube of imitation crab meat made from pulverized, colored fish paste, then I'd hate to hear it.
It's unfortunate, because authentic Japanese food has so much to offer. The Japanese know perhaps better than anyone the value of simplicity. Their chefs have long been adept at honoring ingredients; they can hone the natural flavors in a piece of fish the way someone might train a bonsai to grow. And with that kind of craftsmanship comes a certain level of mystique. In Japan, chefs are revered in a way ours can only hope to be (for proof, just watch an episode of the original Iron Chef). When someone has spent the better part of 50 years doing nothing but slicing fish in some under-street sushi bar, scrutinizing every fiber of every cut, it makes you wonder how the guy making your "Sexy Lady in a Short Skirt" roll can even hope to be placed in the same category.
Despite dozens of sushi joints making such oddly named rolls across South Florida, you could count on one hand the few that are doing anything remotely different. Those places — Marumi Sushi in Sunrise, Sushi Bon in Lantana, and Hiro's Yakko San in Miami Gardens — each attract in-the-know eaters with their fresh local fish and out-of-the-bento-box dishes. Call them the Holy Trinity of South Florida Japanese restaurants; these places are my go-to joints for authentic Japanese fare.
Nu-Sushi; Sushi Simon
Nu-Sushi, 1312 N. University Drive, Coral Springs. Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily. Call 954-755-5211, or click here.
Sushi Simon, 1614 S. Federal Highway, Boynton Beach. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday noon to 10 p.m. Call 561-731-1819.
I've been searching for restaurants to add to that triumvirate for a while, and I have found a couple of candidates in two strip-mall eateries, Nu-Sushi and Sushi Simon. The first, Nu-Sushi in Coral Springs, is actually very unnew; it's been operating in the same dim spot on University Drive for going on 20 years now. In a tiny space that seats about 30, chef-owner Yuji Azuma turns out fresh sushi culled from local and international waters, as well as an extensive array of authentic Japanese dishes that you won't find in many other restaurants.
Of course, saying Nu-Sushi's menu is extensive is sort of like saying Tolstoy was a bit long-winded. A good four dozen items make up Azuma's appetizer section alone — dishes such as thin-sliced octopus salad, deep-fried pork skewers with caramelized onion, and yamakake, tuna sashimi served with slivers of raw potato. Add to that a long list of bento boxes, donburi rice bowls, soba and udon soups, tempura, and katsu (Japan's answer to KFC), plus a whole other mini-menu of about, oh, 40 authentic Japanese small plates and you start to get a glimpse of just how varied a meal there can be.
Some friends and I ordered liberally across the menu during a couple of visits to Nu-Sushi, and nearly everything we tried was tasty or at least interesting. The space is little more than a narrow hallway lined with dark wood paneling. At its far end is a granite-topped sushi bar where Azuma displays his craft for a loyal group of regular customers that almost always packs the four or five seats available. The rest of the dozen or so tables fill up with a mix of Asian and Western clientele, and what they order spans varying levels of adventurousness.
Although authentic textures and flavors abound, even my most sushiphobic buddies found something to like at Nu. There's not a soul alive who wouldn't enjoy a homey dish like pork and vegetable gyoza ($4.25), six taut purses of meat, fried crisp on one edge and served with tart dumpling sauce. Another very simple plate of yakimatsu ($4.25), a sauté of mushrooms and onions in citrusy ponzu sauce, was also a big favorite — we ended up having a chopstick battle over the last few bites, which is a grave sin somewhere, I'm sure.
Meanwhile, the restaurant's two whiteboards posted near the door are filled with daily specials that would charm even the most jaded sushi eater. Azuma sources fresh-caught wahoo, firm and sweet, before slicing it expertly and setting it atop warm, sticky-sweet sushi rice (the only way it should be) at $4 a pair. He balances a bowl of creamy, meltingly rich monk fish liver ($10.95) with a pool of ponzu, though some of the steamed rounds of liver were broken apart into small, hard-to-handle pieces. And if anyone is still not on board with the whole raw fish thing, all it would take is a plate of Nu-Sushi's fabulous fluke usuzukuri ($10.95) and they'd be instant converts. The flounder is sliced as sheer as a piece of silk and arranged on the plate like a blooming flower, its petals glimmering with a pink sheen.
Still, I managed to reach my own limits at Nu. One night, I decided to try a squid and uni salad ($8.95), thinking it would combine the bold, oceanic flavor of uni (sea-urchin roe) with the sublime texture of well-cooked calamari. This salad, however, was a challenge. The uni had been mashed along with orange fish egg (masago) to create a flavorful sauce. But the squid, cut into long, raw strips, had a texture so slippery that I couldn't get past it. It reminded me of an authentic Japanese dish called shiokara, in which squid is fermented in a mixture of salt and a fishy paste. That slithery, brackish snack is commonly paired with a shot of whiskey — which should tell you something about the potency of its flavors.
Nu-Sushi's tuna heaven ($8.95) also tests the limits of cultural taste boundaries. The thin layers of ruby-hued tuna, avocado, and sharp, grassy green onion are enriched with natto, a type of fermented soybean that's known for its distinctly pungent aroma. I've tried to eat natto on a few occasions, and each time, I've failed miserably. Maybe it's the slightly off-color smell or the slimy, stringy filament called neba that coats the beans, but every time my lips touch natto, it's like my stomach is being sent into warp drive: She just can't take much more of this, Captain.
I can appreciate those highly authentic and adventurous dishes at Nu-Sushi. But ending my meal on something closer to home — maybe a hand roll of sweet stone crab ($4.95), the succulent flesh livened by a spicy mayonnaise and scallion — is a reward in itself. When you think about it, that's a pairing not all that different from the mustardy sauce Floridians have been dunking the prized claw meat in for decades.
A few dozen miles north in Boynton Beach sits Sushi Simon, another strip-mall eatery that's received a bit of praise for its ultra-fresh fish. I stopped in on a weeknight to test it out and found the 2-year-old spot full of hard-core sashimi fans looking for a fix.
Unlike Nu-Sushi, stepping in to Sushi Simon makes you instantly forget that you're dining in a strip mall. The restaurant is romantic and spacious, with high-backed wooden chairs padded with ornate pillows. The effect is so comforting that we practically sank into our table as we sat down to peruse the menu of mostly sushi, sashimi, and specialty rolls.
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A small folded menu details the specials for the night, and what they lack in number they make up for in appeal. There was wild-caught salmon ($6), slivers of deep mahogany rich with flavor; and local mutton snapper ($5), which, according to our knowledgeable waitress, was hauled off the boat just an hour before we sat down. Bluefin o-toro, one of the most coveted cuts around, topped off the specials menu at $20 for a generous order of six bite-sized pieces.
You'll notice a startling eye for detail in everything at Sushi Simon, beginning with warm orange and red walls adorned with abstract art and translating to the plating itself. Even typical orders of miso soup ($4) are served in mismatched porcelain bowls so beautiful that you'll want to keep them on the table after you've finished. A daily special of Crazy Lucy soup ($6.50) was basically a large order of that miso broth made elegant with the addition of cilantro, tomato, and a few supple shrimp dumplings. I'm not sure if it was the subtle upgrades or the brilliant, hand-painted bowl it came in, but the ordinarily earthy flavors of miso tasted amazingly sharp and clean.
Our waitress knew the menu inside and out. So when we asked about a special called Boston fluke Morimoto ($20), she said, "That's my favorite!" In it, thin-sliced fluke sashimi, fleshy and vibrant, was seared on the plate with a hand torch and topped with spicy mayo, cilantro, and ponzu, a robust combination of smoky and savory that played out beautifully. Similarly themed Nobu snapper ($22) featured some of that fresh-off-the-boat fish arranged into a circle with wispy strings of beet and a mound of black tobiko-flecked spicy tuna tartare in the center. Everything tasted so good, one of my guests decided to sample a vibrant purple orchid garnish, popping the whole thing in his mouth before we could debate whether it was edible. "It didn't have much flavor at all," he said afterward. I'll stick with the snapper, thanks.
Sushi Simon doesn't have much in the way of hot food, so if you're not craving raw fish, you probably won't leave satisfied. Still, a bowl of edamame ($6.50) salty and juicy in their shells can sate a fix for something more substantial. The place has a decent wine list with crisp whites and sakes, plus big ol' 22-ounce cans of Sapporo and a small list of specialty cocktails like lichee martinis replete with the white-fleshed fruit floating inside. A three-page list of wittily named rolls like the Very Sexy roll and the South Beach roll are mostly variations on common rolls you can get just about anywhere and all rather pricey. I avoided them in favor of something rarer: an order of the o-toro. That stuff melts on your tongue like a thin, oceanic mint. The chef even threw in a ball of fresh-grated wasabi, not that powdered stuff you usually get elsewhere. At $20 a pop, it's a far cry from the cheap sushi joints running up and down the road from Sushi Simon. But it sure beats the hell out of a California roll.