Even the stateliest among us lose all pretensions over a bowl of good soup. Soup is soul food. The simplest food. The food you first experiment with as a child — whether it's using the letters in your alphabet soup to spell dirty words or playfully slurping up noodles in big strands.
Yet, here we were: four (relative) grownups, sucking the silky, warming broth of our lobster head miso soup through the creature's own spindly legs.
It began when one of us tried using the lobster's appendages as a straw. We then discovered that the practice imparted an even stronger jolt of sweet, lobster-infused essence into the already heady soup. It was playfully satisfying — a moment of wonderment in a meal full of them. And it was the sort of unaffected experimentation that can be derived only from a night of chasing culinary boundaries, a trip my friends and I undertook recently at Marumi Sushi.
Marumi, hidden in a sleepy strip mall in Plantation, defies the typical definition of a Japanese restaurant. Although the word sushi graces its name, it shares almost nothing with the hundreds of joints that sling low-quality, prefrozen tuna, salmon, and escolar (or white tuna) on sticky rice throughout Broward and Palm Beach. Take a glance at the specials board at Marumi — placed a few feet in front of your table by the doting staff — and you'll find deep-fried glass minnows, sushi rolls made with fresh Florida lobster, and beef tongue braised in a sweet sauce; plus a plethora of fish like yellow jack, skipjack, black grouper, and snapper rendered into sashimi or seared and sliced thick. That's on top of a menu that throws down on dishes like grilled black pork belly with ponzu sauce, fermented natto beans, sliced duck breast, fresh seafood ceviche, and boiling pots of soup with udon and tofu. Did you feel that? It's enough to make your inner foodie catapult around your brainpan with glee.
To the uninitiated, Marumi might sound a bit like an episode of Bizarre Foods with that odd Andrew Zimmern guy. But it's not untested waters in South Florida. Marumi is similar to North Miami's Yakko-San, a place where Marumi's executive chef and co-owner, Teruhiko Iwasaki, once crafted many of the same dishes. Last August, Iwasaki branched out with friend and fellow chef Tetsu Hayakawa to open a place of their own.
Teru-san and Tetsu-san, as the staff affectionately refers to them, most certainly command a craftsman's touch at their own restaurant. The emphasis is on freshness and authenticity; a derivation of the Japanese practice of washoku, which favors of broad range of small bites over one main course. The plates are served tapas-style and à la carte; most fall under $10. They lend themselves well to communal dining, allowing a few diners to bravely share the chicken livers or beef tongue that they might not have tried solo. Even the larger dishes, such as the hulking cauldrons of soup, come with extra spoons and bowls for sharing. Couple that with the 1:30 a.m. closing time and Marumi becomes the ideal choice for hungry hipsters looking for a post-club nosh or food-service workers just finishing their shifts.
On a recent Saturday night, however, Marumi was painfully slow. Even though the place just celebrated its first year in business, I never saw it more than half full during my four visits. Which leads me to believe that people either don't know about it yet or are put off by its extensive menu. (Though the décor, more homely than homey, might have something to do with it as well.) We asked our sweet server why she thought that might be: "We do get some people who come in here and don't know what to order, so they ask for tuna or California rolls," she said, somewhat exasperatedly. "I tell them, 'You didn't come here for a California roll!' " Sadly, they probably did.
One thing's for sure: You can't fault her or the rest of the staff. As daunting as the menu can be, these guys and gals are vigilantly helpful. They can absolutely drop science on any of their long lineup of dishes, going so far as to tell you exactly when that spiny lobster you're eyeing arrived in chef Teru-san's ready hands. They'll remove plates with careful efficiency and offer refills on your sake before the last drop is spent. They even change out your dish of dipping ponzu, which can get murky from repeated use. And they seem to genuinely enjoy their work. If only they weren't so damned cheery, I'd relate them to some hyperefficient race of food-slinging Borg Bots.
If you find yourself slightly overwhelmed, these superwaitrons might turn you on to something simple — say, Hama Hama oysters ($9), a cluster of four shelled crustaceans bathed in a pool of citrusy ponzu spiked with scallions and a spicy mixture of red chilies and grated daikon radish called momiji oroshi. Teru-san sources the oysters from the mouth of the Hama Hama River where it empties into Washington's Puget Sound. They're ideal oysters: soft yet fleshy and positively clean. Alternatively, you could kick things off with a more traditional Japanese snack, like an order of fried glass minnows ($4) or niboshi, dried sardines ($6). These small, salty fish are perfect beer food, best enjoyed with a tall glass of Sapporo.
Even more pleasing are the Florida rock shrimp ($7.50), a sizable plate of thickly battered shrimp, skillfully fried until they're juicy and sweet. Topped with a lighter version of Masumi's spicy mayo, the shrimp become irresistible if not slightly indulgent. Similarly, black pork belly ($8) and stir-fried pork with kimchee ($6.50) temper just the right amount of fat with texture — though the bacony belly is not nearly as caramelized as it should be.
Two dishes I'd never pass up are the skipjack tataki ($14) and the braised beef tongue salad ($10). Skipjack is a small, Pacific tuna also known as aku or katsuo. More than a dozen thick, triangular slices of the mahogany flesh are seared quickly and dabbed with a pinch of ginger, minced red onion, and scallions. You'll swear off ordinary tuna tataki after trying it. The beef tongue medallions circling a Thai-inspired salad play a similar trick in that you've probably never had beef tongue rendered so delicate, intensely beefy, and tender.
Marumi's most intriguing offer, though, is its fresh, whole fish. At the start of the meal, your server will haul a glistening array of local seafood to your table such as hog snapper, triggerfish, grouper, and lobster. She'll explain to you what each critter tastes like and how it's best prepared. The mild hog snapper, our server told us, makes excellent usuzukuri, the transparently thin slices of sashimi. Or, she explained, in a stir-fry with garlic chives and bean sprouts. The triggerfish, with its slightly firmer flesh, loves to be grilled. Most of the fish can be done two or three ways, and because everything is just $1.20 per ounce, you can quickly turn an average-sized fish into a three-course meal.
Each of the three times I've ordered this way, I've come away surprised. The hog snapper usuzukuri was as singularly edifying as sashimi gets — mind-blowingly fresh and oceanic. It was almost a crime to sully it in the accompanying ponzu and momiji oroshi, which is served in place of wasabi with most dishes. Our host Teru-san provided us with slivers of a triggerfish's ivory liver that tasted like some version of foie gras grown on a vibrant seabed. As good as that was, the chewy gizzard accompanying it was almost better. And I've never had anything quite like the Florida lobster sashimi, made from the same bugger we would later enjoy grilled with shiitakes and onions and then again in lobster head soup. There is something sinfully decadent about eating raw chunks of crystalline lobster meat. It's like feasting on gold bullion. The only thing shattering that illusion is that this entire three-way preparation cost just $48 and fed four people.
At its best, Marumi is a blank canvas. It could be your after-work haunt, where you wash away the aches with a cold Kirin and a handful of small bites; your secret cure for a rainy day, where you go to clear your head over a bowl of rich, curry soba; or your luxe date-night destination, where a dinner for two is anything but standard. Above all, it's a playground, where a lobster leg doubles as a straw and your next adventure is as close as the sushi chef's bar top. Broward's never really had a place like Marumi. Let's hope it's with us for a while.