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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Stay up late

Izakaya Toshi slings sake and Japanese snacks until midnight

Posted on Wed, May 12, 2010 at 4:00 AM

The traditional Japanese izakaya is a raucous late-night sake house that serves the Japanese equivalent of tapas ' basically, bar food. Izakaya Toshi slings a handful of sakes, plenty of Kirin Ichiban, and the small plates are served until the wee hours (that's midnight in Altamonte Springs), but the scene is much less boisterous than your average Ginza grog shop. The light of the swinging red lantern out front illuminates a largely empty dining room inside, but on the Saturday night we visited, that only served to make our dinner all the more personal. Yoshi Kushibiki, proprietress and wife of chef Toshi Kushibiki, was as pleasant a hostess as you'll find anywhere. She spoke of her emigration from Sapporo to Orlando and took the time to translate menu items in between joking with us.

Surprisingly, neither oshibori (wet towel) nor otoshi (amuse) were offered, as is the custom, but a version of the latter was presented mid-meal to us in the form of kombu (kelp) cooked with soy sauce, sugar and a dash of seven-spice shichimi togarashi powder. More a condiment, the kombu, I found, went well with a little steamed rice. In fact, it would've made an ideal wrap for the onigiri ($5), mistakenly advertised as a rice 'bowlâ?� instead of 'ball.â?� The nori-wrapped triangle of rice came filled with umeboshi, a tart pickled plum paste. A bowl is what the yamakaze tororo ($10) came in, though the mucilaginous texture may turn some diners off. The grated Japanese mountain yam is the main ingredient in a runny broth layered with a bit of wasabi and fresh ruby-red squares of tuna. Yoshi encouraged us to finish the broth once the fish was eaten, as the yams, she said, were quite expensive. From the sushi menu, the yum yum rolls ($9) lived up to the name. A thin layer of panko breading was followed by the crunch of asparagus and, finally, a spicy mix of tuna. Nothing too adventurous, but the rolls were little works of art, and they were wholeheartedly devoured.

Mains comprise meats that are either breaded (katsu/tempura), kebabbed (kushiyaki) or sauced (teriyaki/misoyaki). We chose to enjoy our New York strip ($20) with misoyaki, a sweet soybean paste lighter in flavor than teriyaki, and enjoy it we did. The beef was soft and pliant, though instead of the lackluster pasta salad on the side, I would've preferred a starch with more substance. Chicken yakisoba ($13) was a stir-fried wonder, with plenty of fresh vegetables ' broccoli, green beans, celery and asparagus ' mixed with the thin noodles. And the dish held up quite nicely the next day.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention their miso soup, which was the finest I've sampled anywhere in the city. If the complimentary bowl isn't enough, another can be had for $3.

Desserts aren't listed on the menu, but if you're interested, just ask. More than likely, you'll be served a cantaloupe boat ($4) artistically sided with kiwi and strawberries with cream. The trio of fruit, perfectly cut and so wonderfully sweet and fresh, had us humming. Too bad they didn't have any karaoke machines ' if they'd served us some more, we would've broken out in song.

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