Thursday, July 26, 2007

BIG DADDY'S ROLLHOUSE

Posted on Thu, Jul 26, 2007 at 4:00 AM

You get the feeling that Takashi Hayakawa is a man who likes flying under the radar. The master chef has operated his humble little restaurant off I-Drive's beaten path for the better part of a decade (a veritable lifetime here in Orlando) yet the place has gone largely unnoticed among the city's sushi enthusiasts. Then again, acquiring 'hidden gem� status practically necessitates next to no marketing and/or advertising, an inconspicuous locale and, in this particular case, dark-tinted windows ' not exactly attributes that beckon potential customers. Poke your head inside and you'll be hard-pressed to discern the place's appeal from its simple décor, and left to wonder how long the Japanese paintings have been left hanging askew on the miso-hued walls.

So while many of us were flocking to trendier joints for rarefied meals, serendipitous diners and the city's small contingent of Japanese denizens were quietly being tended to by itamei Hayakawa. In fact, I was somewhat struck by the number of Japanese patrons dining here (always a good sign), given that I'd hardly seen any in all the other sushi joints I've visited in town. Well, for good or bad, the secret's out.

In my lame, and embarrassingly meddlesome, attempt to strike up a conversation with 'big daddy,â?� or oyaji, Hayakawa, I did manage to glean this fact: He's been dicing, slicing and rolling fish for nearly 30 years. That's about it. As I sat at the small sushi bar mulling over the gamut of icebreakers, I couldn't help but notice a half-dozen framed autographs on the wall behind the bar. 'Who are the autographs of?â?� I timorously queried, at which he shot me a glance, dramatically paused with sushi knife firmly clasped in his muscled hand and said, 'Japanese golfers.â?� So he's as taciturn and imposing a chap you'll ever meet, but he commands respect in that quiet Beat Takeshi sort of way. And the man knows his sushi, and that's all that really matters.

The fish, it should be noted, is unquestionably fresh. Just sample the richly flavored tuna or salmon nigiri ($2.25) and you'll see. Toro ($3.75), the fatty part from the belly of a bluefin tuna, just melts in your mouth, while the sea eel ($3.75) was described as 'sublimeâ?� by a friend of mine, a self-confessed sushi fiend. It was nice to see shiro maguro ($2.25), or albacore tuna, listed as a special as it's rarely offered, given the fish's propensity to change color quickly. The soft, ivory white flesh yielded a mild and refreshing taste ' an absolute must-have if it appears on Hayakawa's blackboard of specials.

Chomping on the golden gonads of a sea urchin isn't everyone's idea of a delectable nosh, but lovers of uni ($3.75) will delight in every bite of this gunkan-wrapped roll. For the uninitiated, uni is subtly sweet and texturally creamy with an aftertaste serving to remind diners of the creature's marine origins.

I dove into the corpulent kamikaze rolls ($6.75) ' tuna, yellowtail, salmon and wasabi mayo ' with reckless abandon yet emerged relatively unscathed. Not so with sriracha-laced fire rolls ($5.75) that set off a conflagration in my mouth, rapidly burning off the essence of tuna, white fish and smelt roe.

A meal away from the sushi bar can comprise anything from ramen noodles to katsu-don to chicken curry. Those preferring turf over surf won't be disappointed with the steak and chicken teriyaki ($17.75), particularly the tender and flavorful short loin cut. Agedashi ($5), an ancient Japanese soup with pillowy-soft blocks of fried tofu, is elevated by the light tentsuyu broth made of kelp and dried tuna shavings, and topped with finely chopped spring onion and daikon radish puree.

The requisite Lucky Cat figurine sits atop the bar to bring the owner good luck, but I couldn't help but feel a bit of that feline fortune rubbing off on me after sampling the quality sushi at Hayakawa's hideaway.

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