Restaurant Reviews

Rok 'n' (Sushi) Roll

A couple of years ago, the Japanese girl-group Shonen Knife put out a CD called Happy Hour. The disc has several songs about food on it, including "Gyoza," "Banana Chips," and "Hot Chocolate," so of course I bought it. I figured at the least it'd be an amusing dinner-party piece. Wrong. Now, I'm no music critic, but is this group deliberately tuneless and insipid? For instance, take the "Sushi Bar Song." The lyrics go -- and I'm not kidding -- "Sushi, sushi, sushi bar! Going to a sushi bar! Sushi, sushi, sushi bar! Going to a sushi bar!" And so on. The song concludes with the most complex lines: "Ooh, let's eat a healthy menu. It's a famous Japanese meal. Ooh, let's drink hot green tea. After a Japanese meal." There's nothing catchy about this three-chord ditty. I just don't get the appeal.

I feel similarly about the name "Sushi Rock" for a Japanese restaurant. Though they're all spelled differently, there's a Sushi Roc in La Jolla, California; Sushi Rock on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale; and the latest variation, Sushi Rok on North Olive Avenue in West Palm Beach, which opened a couple of weeks ago. There's no connection among these joints except for the name, and folks, it ain't all that memorable to begin with. So what's the deal?

According to food-and-beverage director Matt Lambert, the West Palm Beach proprietors chose the name Sushi Rok because it suggests something far more fun and contemporary than the traditional sushi bar. Um, OK. But then, the proprietors are currently calling themselves the S.E.I. Restaurant Group, Inc. That doesn't exactly blow you away, either. Still, it's a step from the company's previous name, Sforza, which no one could either spell or pronounce.

In fact S.E.I. has taken several steps these past few months. The restaurant group, which currently runs Max's BeachPlace in Fort Lauderdale; Max's Grill in Weston and in Las Olas Riverfront; and Sforza and My Martini Grille, both on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach, was formerly under the umbrella of Dennis Max's Unique Restaurant Concepts, and used to be called Sforza. Sforza broke away from Unique this past August. Sforza changed its name, took over several of the Max properties, and voilà! It's a famous Japanese meal.

Indeed Sushi Rok is the company's first venture out from under Max's aegis. And if the staff can overcome some service shortcomings, Sushi Rok just might be the first independent to prove that the protégé has, if not outstripped, at least equaled the master.

With its red-stained maple paneling riveted with silver studs, track lighting, and gleaming stainless-steel furniture, the place is handsome, if a bit cold. Literally -- the uncushioned chairs ensure some pretty chilly tushies. It's a good idea to warm up with bowls of tasty miso soup, rich with boiled tofu and floating shreds of seaweed. Or sip hot sake: Sushi Rok carries many varieties of this fermented rice liquor, including some bottlings from Oregon and the Napa Valley. (And you thought sake came only from Japan.) The sake cocktails, ranging from a cosmopolitan to a bloody mary, are also appealing -- if the server remembers to bring your drink over, that is. I watched my lemon-drop cocktail sit on the bar for half an hour; later during the meal, I was served plum wine rather than the chardonnay I'd requested. Kind of like drinking root beer when you ordered a Coke. Ick.

Our server also forgot to bring a harusame (rice noodle) salad, first giving us wakame (seaweed) salad by mistake and then just ignoring the matter. Eventually she simply took it off the check. In addition, food came out rather haphazardly because of the kitchen's being backed up when the sushi chefs were free and vice versa. But all in all, despite the oddly forgetful service, the fare was tasty enough and authentic enough for us to maintain our goodwill. And Lambert, who cheerfully admits he's learning about Japanese cooking (his general manager quit a week before the opening), is congenially persuasive. After sampling the gingery salad dressing or the sesame-laced oshitashi (boiled spinach) appetizer, even the most disgruntled consumer, I imagine, will come back when the restaurant's more seasoned.

One of the reasons to return is for the hamachi kama appetizer. Known as yellowtail "collars," these fatty fish sections, about an inch thick, were rock-salted and baked. The salt sealed in the moisture and allowed the exterior of the fish to form a natural crust. This delicacy isn't often seen in Japanese-American restaurants -- even the ones that list hamachi kama on the menu don't always have the dish in stock -- so take advantage.

White tuna, more buttery and soft than red tuna, is a second delicacy to note. Again, not all Japanese restaurants carry it, so I frequent the ones that do. Sushi Rok will even include the tuna on a boat, among a generous selection of sushi, sashimi, and rolls. Without exception the fish -- salmon, yellowtail, and red snapper -- was fresh and decoratively arranged over ice.

While it's easy to be seduced by good, clean-tasting raw fish and vinegared rice, it would be shameful to miss out on some excellent cooked dishes. We didn't care for a sesame-coated chicken starter, which was soggy, but were enticed by a main course of chicken katsu, or deep-fried chicken breast. I like my katsu the way I like my Wiener schnitzel -- the breading should be greaseless and lift off the meat rather than cling stickily to it. This katsu was ideal, the Japanese bread crumb coating crisp and golden, the poultry tender and juicy, partnered by an intense ginger-plum sauce.

Traditional yakisoba, a noodle dish tossed with cabbage and thin, seared slices of flank steak, was also delicious. A garnish of pickled ginger gave it a kick, and sautéed onions lent an earthy base. Even the ubiquitous teriyaki sauce was given new meaning when it served as a dressing for flash-fried shrimp (which had been dredged in flour) and meaty mushroom halves. Just don't try to get too adventurous. We almost ordered a whole-flounder special until the server confided, as an afterthought, that it was a decent amount of food for $60. Sixty bucks! I'd try blowfish for that amount, but flounder just doesn't cut it.

Speaking of floundering, the restaurant wound up getting so busy that we passed on tempura-battered cheesecake for dessert and made do with the hot green tea that had been replenished throughout the meal. And there's always that ultrasugary plum wine, which the bar can't seem to differentiate from the dry stuff. But then, you could always write a song about it. Something like: "Plum, plum, plum wine! Gonna drink some plum wine!" That's about as catchy as the name Sushi Rok, no?

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick