Junichi Takazoe is as confident a culinarian as they come, and with good reason. Stints at such restaurants as Nobu in Tokyo and Hamasaku in L.A. not only afforded plenty of opportunity for chop-honing, but also caught the notice of a certain ponytailed Iron Chef who snagged him for head sushi chef duties at Morimoto Asia. But when I ask him why he left his lofty position at the fancy Disney Springs joint, his back straightens, his lips purse and in a very unhumorous and severe tone he says, "Personal reasons."
Hey, Disney's loss is Sanford's gain as far as I'm concerned, even if his new izakaya venture – Jimotti's Restaurant – is situated in a gritty swath of the city (far from the oft-visited "historic district") inside a lingering architectural vestige from 1962 with an A-frame roof and long covered patio. Things don't get any more contemporary on the inside, either – certainly not with the menu, which only serves to minimize visual distractions.
There is a small bar from which Hitachino Nest beers flow to accompany trad renditions of "Japanese-style tapas," like deftly fried chicken kara-age ($8), which had my name on it (literally). Just as comforting: intensely flavored Kurobuta sausages and more delicate Sakura sausages served over a mustard sauce with pea tendrils and a beet slice. Simple, yes, but the dishes also exemplify Takazoe's focus on quality ingredients and technical precision. When we ordered grilled yellowtail ($16), he made it a point to tell us the fish is from Japan and, carbon footprint be damned, it was one of the most succulent I've had. Like ever.
If you ask for a signature item on the menu, Takazoe will tell you, in cocksure fashion, "all of them." Like I said, the man is as confident in his skills as he is with his ingredients. Just pop nigiri of silvery-skinned (and seriously fishy) gizzard shad ($4.50) into your mouth, or sashimi of toro ($9), or albacore dressed with sesame and ponzu and topped with crispy wonton skins ($14), and you'll likely be convinced. Even pedestrian spicy tuna rolls ($8) are carefully anointed with piquant sesame oil and layered with smelt roe and a secret blend of various chili peppers. Wasabi, by the way, is real and freshly grated (a privilege that'll cost you $10 at Morimoto Asia), and this in Sanford, I say. Sanford!
Another in a string of delights: cha soba ($12.95). The buckwheat noodles are infused with the essence of green tea and come with tempura-fried potato, yam, zucchini, eggplant and shrimp, but the broth, which imparted a genteel sweetness to the gossamer-green noodles, was an absolute standout.
Desserts aren't a priority here (there's no pastry chef), so if needs must, a scoop of black sesame ice cream with whipped cream will have to do the trick. If not, savor another glass of Hitachino Nest Anbai Ale ($8.50) and contemplate your return visit.
I have to say, I don't envy Takazoe trying to make a go of it alone on this less-than-desirable strip, and in a space currently up for sale, but I sure as hell respect his willingness and determination to elevate, diversify and expand the palates of the good folks of Sanford. "Jimotti," after all, is Japanese slang for "local people."
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