A few weeks ago, Clean Plate Charlie reported that the Seminole Coconut Creek Casino would bring in a special catch, a whole loin worth of ultra-expensive and rare Kindai tuna, that it would sell as a special at its Thursday- through Saturday-night sushi bar, located just inside Nectar Lounge. Kindai is an alternative to wild bluefin tuna, whose dwindling stocks have prompted Japanese researchers at Kinki University to develop methods for farm-raising the fish. There's some question whether Kindai will ever become an acceptable and environmentally stable long-term solution for the international bluefin market, but it's certainly not right now. The fish is considered rarer and, in some cases, fetches even more on the open market than wild bluefin. Compound that with the short supply flown into the U.S. from Japan -- just three 130- to 200-pound fish for all of North America each week -- and you can begin to appreciate just what it must have taken for a small casino in Coconut Creek to get its hands on one.
That, in fact, was the biggest question I had going into my Kindai meal on Friday night -- why was the Coconut Creek Casino, which draws a large portion of its clientele from the retirees in the northwest Broward region, chosen as the destination for the Kindai, and not one of the Seminole's more fashionable properties, like the Hard Rock? It's true, the Coconut Creek Casino has been making a concerted effort to pump up its stature a bit, inviting big-name celebrities to come in for signings and tastings, showcasing $5 million in cash there (that exhibit traveled to a number of Seminole Casinos, including the Hard Rock), and bringing in a number of big musical acts. When I arrived Friday, one such act, Mini Kiss (that's a Kiss tribute band made entirely of little people), was rocking away on the Nectar Lounge stage. Ordinarily, I'd have been pretty pleased to sit in the lounge, have a drink, and watch a tiny Gene Simmons go to town on his very large bass. But the sushi bar at which I was about to sit and sample well over $100 of highly prized Kindai was a minuscule, four-seat section sandwiched like an afterthought between the main entrance and a very busy cocktail bar. It was also square in the trajectory of those blasting speakers, making for a somewhat awkward and uncomfortable meal. Combine that with the wafting smell of chain-smoking gamblers and my question morphed into a challenge: Why in the world would anyone choose to proffer the world's most expensive fish in the middle of bedlam?
Answering that challenge is the Casino's Executive Chef, Francois Ternes. A tall and stern looking Frenchman with a disarming smile, Ternes has a knack for sourcing rare ingredients from around the world. It's a theme that's displayed in the Casino's other restaurant, Fresh Harvest, an open-air Mediterranean-style market where fresh ingredients are key. Ternes, along with Sous Chefs Michael Quek and Jarrod Campbell, worked together
to create a three-course menu specially for the Kindai that would both
complement the fish's unique qualities and let it speak for itself.
Still, it was loud in there. It was smokey. It was an open air lounge in the middle of a busy casino serving outrageously expensive fish. Something was just not clicking for me. Chefs Quek and Campbell greeted me at the door, and I can tell you they were trying their hardest. From the moment I sat down, I could see the somewhat pained look in their faces as they were trying to communicate over the blaring music. Imagine when you're in a loud bar and you're trying to have a conversation, so you're forced to scream directly into the ear of your companion. Now imagine that instead of just having a conversation, you're trying to perform some very careful and artistic work, all while explaining what you're doing to someone and trying to prove it's valuable. To say the least, is was hardly ideal, and I felt for those guys.
The first thing we did, however, was lighten up a bit with a few bamboo cups worth of Green River Lake cold sake, a rarely imported, but not too expensive brand of aged rice wine - a favorite of Chef Ternes he brought in just for the occasion. Chef Quek grabbed a jar of Halen Mon, a smoked sea salt imported from Scotland, and dabbed a flake on the edge of my cup. With a "kampai," I sipped from the cup - the sake was cool and refreshing, with a very slight sweetness that was offset by the savory sea salt. It was highly drinkable, calming stuff, which is what attracted Ternes to it in the first place.
After our sake break, Mini Kiss transitioned into some Van Halen and I started feeling loads better. Chef Campbell began preparing my first course, umami-seasoned Kindai loin with hoisin nitro noodles ($48). A slab of the beefy Kindai loin about the size of a deck of cards was lightly dusted with black pepper and what Chef Campbell referred to as umami seasoning (essentially monosodium glutamate, or MSG) and seared by hand with a kitchen torch right on the countertop. He then sliced the Kindai into thin strips similar to tataki and served it alongside a twirl of noodles made from Chinese hoisin sauce, given shape with agar agar.
I went in for a sliver of Kindai right away. It was exceptionally smooth and silky, with a very meaty, yet slightly oceanic tuna flavor. The addition of the "umami" brought out all the highlights of the tuna: the buttery slickness of the fat, the beefiness of the deep-purple flesh, the slight char from the lick of the kitchen torch's flames. What struck me most was the texture. Unlike typical maguro, there were no spots in which the fish's muscles were separated by connective tissue, nor was there even the slightest fibrous element to the flesh. It reminded me almost of seared duck breast, all slick and unctuous and sinfully delicious. The hoisin noodles were also a real treat. Laced with sesame and scallions, they offered a sweet and nutty note, and left the pleasant taste of plum lingering on my tongue. Although the noodles were great, where this dish really succeeded was in showcasing the rich flavors of the Kindai.
Next up was a trio of "tuna" sashimi: a sizable slab of gorgeous pink Kindai belly cut into three squares, a thin strip of bluefin toro lying atop a bed of microgreens infused with wasabi and passion fruit, and a cut of escolar (also known as white tuna) with a yuzu-soy reduction, topped with a sliver of soy-aged garlic and masago ($55).
The escolar, though a fairly staid sashimi fish in these parts, was livened up well enough by the yuzu-soy sauce - essentially a ponzu reduction. The three-month aged garlic was a nice touch, giving it a sweet, almost fruit-like flavor - another real highlight.
Moving on, the bluefin toro was well-marbled but had a slightly inconsistent texture, with some spots in the flesh ceding to the tongue with ease and other parts requiring a bit more teeth work. The microgreens below were sweet enough from the passion fruit but could have used a slightly firmer hand with the wasabi, which disappeared almost completely next to the sweet passion fruit.
The Kindai again shined on the plate, with the chefs eschewing any complex additions and simply placing it atop a mound of shredded daikon with a sliver of pickled ginger. It performed more like toro should: The milky, pink flesh was completely glutted with wispy streams of silken fat so that it collapsed in my mouth with the slightest suggestion, shooting out waves of buttery flavor. There was one piece that perhaps was cut too close to another muscle group and had a slightly tougher bit around the edge as a result. But this was easy to overlook, as the whole of the Kindai was almost creamy in texture - simply profound.
The last dish was a tartare of Kindai belly and loin resting on a platform of finely chopped shiitake and avocado. The round mold was floating in a light yuzu-soy vinaigrette and seasoned with more of that Halen Mon sea salt, and topped with a fried quail egg ($42). For me, this was the least successful of the three dishes, primarily because the flavor of the Kindai was lost among the other one-note ingredients. The mushrooms, avocado, egg, and even the fish all had a similar texture and flavor, especially when chilled the way the tartare dictated. In addition, the smokiness of the Halen Mon salt was not nearly pronounced enough. The yuzu vinaigrette added a slightly tangy element but not enough to make this a keeper.
Chef Ternes was also kind enough to offer another special roll from the sushi bar's menu, a "surf and turf" roll packed with Florida lobster and topped with torched slivers of beef tenderloin. At just $13, this roll is a steal and seems well-suited for the environment - I could see high-rollers plopping down at the sushi bar and scarfing these like candy as the cover bands played on in the background. Shoot, I could see myself returning for a 1 a.m. nosh and grabbing a beer and a roll. The seared tenderloin on top was as fab a finish as you could imagine, and additions of asparagus, avocado, and a sweet eel sauce rounded out the flavors.
All told, the Kindai menu at the Seminole Coconut Creek Casino is, for the most part, a special opportunity for South Florida sushi fans to try something they will probably not get a chance to have around here anytime soon. Although the ambiance in Nectar Lounge may not be a great fit for luxury tuna, I really have to give props to the casino for bringing it in. Ternes admitted the untrimmed tuna loin cost them more than $77 a pound - even more after the bloodline was removed. That's a hefty chunk of change in this kind of market, especially when most consumers may not even know the difference between bluefin and Kindai, or even standard medium-grade sushi tuna, for that matter. As far as keeping it fresh over the next few weeks until it sells, the casino also sports an 85-degrees-below-zero freezer in which to store it (it's similar to the big freeze put on the fish as it travels to market). While the risk may not be that great when the Seminole's coffers are considered, it does take a certain amount of guts just to pull it off, especially from the chef's perspective. But Ternes and crew definitely seem to be enjoying their good fortune. In the end, we sat and polished off the surf-and-turf roll and a bottle of sake as Mini Kiss jumped off stage. Pretty good times after all.