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    Shopping near the West Oaks Mall a few weeks ago -- on my 27th trip to the hardware store for a home renovation project -- I spotted an unusual sign: "October Rice," it said, "a Chinese Cuisinery."

    Open since last September, the "cuisinery" is nestled in a strip mall between a uniform store and a bar-stool outlet, so you might not expect to find more than garden-variety food. And with only five little tables in a small space, an open kitchen and counter service, October Rice doesn't look like a sit-down restaurant.

    But, appointed in lovely shades of light and dark woods, and deep-blue lighting fixtures, the atmosphere seems to convince people coming in for take-out to stay. The counter and tables fill up quickly with people enjoying skillfully crafted renditions of familiar dishes.

    The menu is beautiful, printed on creamy paper with elegant type, but the prices are more than reasonable.

    The food sticks to the standard Chinese fare that you'd find on most menus but makes credible use of well-chosen and well-prepared ingredients. October Rice makes a savory hot-and-sour soup ($1.75), with strips of chicken and tofu cubes in a broth sharp with vinegar and spices. "Chinese ravioli" ($4.50) are deep fried wontons filled with chicken -- a bit too crisp on this visit but still a pleasant combination of flavors and textures. Chicken teriyaki ($3.75) is oven-roasted and brushed, not drowned, in dark sauce and served with crisply saut?ed vegetables.

    The "festival of the sea" special combined plump shrimp, tender and moist stir-fried scallops and a chunk of lobster in a surprisingly light soy/wine sauce that didn't cover up the taste of the seafood ($11.95). The "sweet & sour" chicken ($6.95) hearkens back to days when chefs actually used pineapple and pickles, instead of sugar syrup and vinegar, to create the two contrasting flavors. Bravo for that. The wok-fried tofu ($6.25) is soft bean curd and vegetables seared in garlic and soy sauce, a much-needed alternative choice for the veggies among us.

    In another unexpected move, food is served in take-away containers with plastic cutlery -- but they're the sturdiest containers I've seen. (I'm still using them.)

    In Asia, rice is traditionally harvested in October, when much-needed rains from the monsoon season have ended and the 100 days of growing are over. Even in the U.S., October rice harvest festivals pop up all over Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. So October Rice alludes to an important time of the year for an important resource. Plus, it's a wonderfully lyrical name.

    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.

    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.

    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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