Thursday, February 12, 2004

Above the fold

Posted on Thu, Feb 12, 2004 at 4:00 AM

The wilds of east Orlando, almost to the edge of civilization where Colonial Drive intersects Alafaya Trail, is not an area that immediately springs to mind for those on the hunt for good sushi; burgers, steakhouses, Wal-Mart and used-car lots, yes. Sushi, not so much.

Tucked away in the Alafaya Commons Plaza, a few stores west of the Publix, is Origami Sushi, an island of hip serenity in a vast sea of suburbia. Outside it looks like every other store in the strip mall. Inside the walls are painted soothing tones of muted, dusky green and burnt orange, the lighting is toned down and there are Japanese screen prints on the walls. Think funky minimalism and you'll get an appropriate mental picture.

Added bonus: The sushi's good, too.

Many factors go into a memorable sushi experience, but when the discussion is limited to the food, what counts is the quality and cut of the fish, the consistency and taste of the rice, and the presentation. Origami gets all three right.

Maguro (tuna, $3.95) and sake (salmon, $3.95) sushi came from the bar on a proper geta (a small wooden block used as a plate), each piece an identically formed ball of rice topped with, but not covered by, a slice of fish. Report card: "A" for presentation.

With the exception of squid, which will take a few chomps, sushi fish should melt in your mouth, no chewing necessary. Both the tuna and the salmon dissolved without much additional help. That's the mark of sushi-quality, correctly cut fish. Report card: "A" for fish.

Sushi rice is itself a deceptive art form -- how hard can it be to make vinegared rice? Very, judging by the lumpy, starchy version common in sushi restaurants. Origami's rice was another story; slightly sweet, it held together when handled with chopsticks (you're supposed to dip your sushi into the soy sauce fish-side down, you know), yet retained its granularity. Report card: "A" for nice rice.

The rolls (maki) were less of a success. I tried a "New Orleans roll" ($6.95) that was a mixture of crab salad, scallions, avocado and spicy mayonnaise, and found it interesting, if a bit heavy due to the mayonnaise.

Then there are the "special" rolls. Sushi purists probably wouldn't order them anyway, dismissing them as a Western bastardization of Japanese cooking, but I gave it a shot for the sake of diversity. The "heaven roll" ($9.95) crammed just about everything in the kitchen (salmon, tuna, asparagus, cream cheese and flying fish eggs) into a roll, batter fried (tempura) the result, and served it up sliced on the diagonal. Again, the adjective that comes to mind is "interesting" or perhaps "filling." I wouldn't exactly call it "tasty."

Appetizers were also hit-and-miss. The batter on both the chicken ($3.95) and vegetable ($3.50) tempura was crunchy, light and perfect. But a deep-fried soft-shell crab ($6.95) came to the table greasy on the outside and cold on the inside -- a disappointment at the price.

Service throughout the meal was attentive but not bothersome, in keeping with the low-key atmosphere. The clientele was young, indicating that the University of Central Florida crowd has found the place. Perhaps the far-out location was a shrewd business move after all.


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