The girl who serves us our sake is a Sexy Kitty.
Her name is Tuesday, she weighs about 80 pounds, and she's one of a stable of "burlesque" entertainers that West Palm clubtrepreneur Rodney Mayo and his right-hand man, Chris Johnson, have put together. The girls are called Sexy Kittys; you can find the pinups in various stages of undress at sexykittys.com, glossies of the "troop" (sic) in the latest issue of Mayo's magazine, Closer, and scattered around, fully clothed but in person at The Lounge: A Sushi and Saki Bar, on Clematis Street.
Like a blockbuster sequel or an academic treatise, Mayo's place has extended its title with a colon. It used to be just the Lounge, a sort-of interesting West Palm bar that occasionally hosted live local bands and was mostly half-empty anytime I dropped in for my mid-evening martini. About a month ago, the Lounge reopened with way more comfortable retro-mod '60s furnishings and flat-screen TVs over the bar showing cavorting sea mammals. A rather harried female sushi chef is tucked away in the back room; she evidently turns out "Clematis Rolls" until 4 a.m. practically every night. There's also a lovely, refurbished outdoor patio and a new lineup of entertainment, including karaoke on Tuesdays. It is to experience the magic of karaoke that we have come (singers drink free, but we're not singing) and to sample the sushi.
But let's back-space ten years. Any time you spot a "new trend" happening in Palm Beach County (burlesque dancers, sake clubs, '60s furnishings, ironic karaoke), you can bet this happenin' thing has already played itself out, wheezed its last pitiful breath, half a decade ago in New York, L.A., or San Fran. Burlesque parties started in Tribeca in the early '90s, took off in Frisco a few years later. You can tell the game has reached the debauched dead-end of its trail in West Palm Beach when you consider that the Sexy Kittys, our homegrown version, not only flash groomed muff and bare nipples but were conjured into existence by a couple of guys who hoped to turn a dime on their skills. The original entertainers of the "new" burlesque, it goes without saying, abhorred full nudity; were accomplished, creative, comic performers; and managed their own financial affairs.
But I'm off topic I should be evaluating the sushi. It's 9:30 p.m.; there are a total of six customers at the Lounge. Our kitty for the evening, Tuesday, has grabbed the karaoke mic and launched into a version of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car," sung charmingly, flatly off-key. I don't realize it at the moment, but within the hour, the room will have filled, and I'm going to be longing for Tuesday Kitty to sing something, anything, again. Because otherwise, some ghastly middle-aged man will be belting out Billy Joel's greatest hits at a volume to make my eyes water. I'll be staring at my companion in deafened, helpless misery, my forgettable, nearly identical rolls (the Mama-san, the Clematis, $10 each) and not-very-fresh hamachi sashimi half-eaten on my plate, my glass of second-rate sake (Gekkeikan Haiku, $12) grown warm. And I'll be shedding my good mood the way some girls peel out of their retro red-satin skivvies.
The next night, a Wednesday, on my way to the Saki Room in Delray Beach, I'm beginning to wonder if there isn't something cynical about the whole enterprise of opening a sake bar (and why is everybody spelling it saki, all of a sudden? Let's get this straight: Saki is a famous British author of short stories. Sake is a Japanese alcoholic beverage brewed from rice). I'm turning into a hideous curmudgeon over a couple of metallic-tasting slices of sashimi and a few spelling mistakes, and my expectations have plummeted, even after chatting beforehand with co-owner and Chef Ed Ueno on the phone. Ueno is a cheerful, voluble man who worked his way to Delray via a gig as corporate chef for the Penrods chain (of Nikki Beach, etc.). He hooked up with Chris Lacata, who edits a glossy local fashion and lifestyle mag called Capture Life, and predictably, their joint venture, opened nine months ago, has high concept written all over it, from the hot-girl greeters at the entrance to the exterior door that doubles as a flat-screen (fat-challenged models mincing down the runway) to the lounge that serves free sushi and champagne to "ladies" on Wednesday nights.
This beautifully tricked-out place with its textured paper walls, geometric lamps, squishy pillows, mood lighting, brick bar, and cool music (Boozoo Baju, at low volume) is, in fact, full of ladies when we arrive. Gorgeous 20-somethings show an abundance of cleavage, tossing glossy locks over tanning-bed-bronzed shoulders. They're sipping gargantuan sakitinis and fresh fruit infusions in spangly colors: the Dragon Breath, the Bloody Geisha, the Mandarin Buddha, the Sour Jap. I order a sakitini made with watermelon juice and orange liquor (the Tsunami, $10), and it conjures memories of kidhood: cough syrup, baby aspirin, Funny Face Drink Mix (Jolly Olly Orange?). It's disgusting, but at least it's strong, and I gulp it right down gotta feel the burn! wishing I'd ordered one of their dozens of premium sakes instead.
Our waiter, however, is adorable, an Asian-American boy so delicately beautiful that he looks female, shiny black tresses pulled into a ponytail. He's as nice as the drink is rotten, and I'm almost willing to forgive everything based on the pure, polished sweetness and good looks of the staff here. Ueno and Lacata must be doing something right. As it turns out, it's not the sushi. A first bite of yellowtail sashimi ($12) leaves a bitter aftertaste; neither is the whitefish (grouper tonight, $9) at its freshest. They're plumb out of toro, luckily, since I would have resented dropping a bundle on lousy tuna belly. Our rolls, a Caterpillar ($10) made with eel, avocado, cream cheese, crab, and cucumber, is creamy-rich the way we Americans like it, prettily presented, completely forgettable. Kansu Salmon Crystal roll ($10), wrapped in cucumber instead of rice, tastes just like all the other maki rolls you've ever eaten.
To be fair, Ueno's specialty is pan-Asian fusion, and there's a whole menu of his concoctions Tuna Four Seasons, Lobster Dynamite, Grilled Black Cod Miso that we don't get to. Somehow, in spite of the insipid sushi and the calculated razzle-dazzle, we find ourselves, as we saunter out, reluctantly admitting we dug the place. The pillows were so comfortable. The eye candy so delicious. The service had been terrific and the music broadcast at decent volume. The lounge, around 10:30, was beginning to fill up with semi-interesting types. We would return.
But not tonight. Instead, we drive straight back to West Palm, hitting Sushi Jo and Sake Jo on Belvedere Road by 11 p.m. Owner Joe Clark has punched through the wall into a former yoga studio and expanded what used to be a tiny, noisy sushi bar into a bigger, noisy sake club with a DJ and the potential for live music. It's stuffed to the gills, as usual, with the best and brightest our little burg has to offer. I love the vibe at Sushi Jo its casual chic, the clientele of old, young, rich, very rich, and extra-superrich dressed up and dressed down; holding birthday parties and first meetings for blind Internet dates; the boomer dudes angling to hook up; the pert young babes who won't give the boomer dudes the time of night. But what I love best about Jo is the food. Expansion, thank God, hasn't dumbed down Jo's delectable comestibles. There's now a Sushi Jo in Boynton Beach too and one scheduled to open in Palm Beach Gardens next to Spoto's, plus a couple at local hotels. The Sushi Jo on Belvedere Road along with Hotel Biba across the street is the very epicenter of hip in Palm Beach County, a condensed zone of cool that's unstudied, unself-referential, miraculously devoid of cynicism, spectacularly fun.
We take our cue from the blackboard specials and eat tiny sunomono river crabs crowded into a bowl with skinny slices of cucumber. They look like fat spiders, flash fried. Crunch down on their brittle shells and they release subtle flavors of clean, free-flowing waters. We drink a bottle of Mu sake ($45), beautifully balanced and delicately flavored, kept chilled in an ice bucket and poured into lovely, tulip-shaped shot glasses filled with exquisite miniature cucumber balls. And slices of sashimi and sushi: marlin, kampachi, Japanese snapper, suzuki (Japanese sea bass), Japanese kobe beef. Every piece of fish is spanking fresh, so silky it dissolves on the tongue, with a gentle, refreshing, lingering, almost indescribable sweetness. The flavors are novel, unique, unexpected. Char-grilled slices of kobe set on fingers of vinegared rice are memory jolts that's what beef tastes like! This is sushi and sashimi with intentional, focused grace, tasting just the way the stuff is intended to. That thick, sticky salmon, the iron-flavored tuna served in other venues, is just the simulacrum of a simulacrum. Hang up your flat screens, concoct your sakitinis, stuff your rooms full of sex kittens. You want cutting edge? Look to your sushi chef's knife that's where the glitter lies.
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