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Sushi goes sublime

Under the discerning, intuitive supervision of Kiku Japanese Restaurant's owner-chef, the harvest of the sea quickly adds heavenly overtones.

Published May 20, 2004

[Times photos: Scott Keeler]
Daniel Chong, Kiku Japanese Restaurant's owner and chef, has an eye for freshness and presentation matched only by his talent of sumptuously combining flavors.
Monkfish pate, one of the chef's specialties, is artfully served in a miso and mustard sauce.
An assortment of Kiku's sushi includes tuna, salmon, crab roll, shrimp, octopus, pickle carrot roll and egg roll.

CLEARWATER BEACH - One of Kiku's customers pens a world-famous comic strip, so the restaurant obligingly has named one of its dishes "Blondie."

The salad is actually more of a Dagwood - if you can imagine Bumstead rooting through the elegant cooler on the sushi bar instead of a refrigerator. That means tuna, white fish, salmon, calamari, red tobiko, tempura crab, mixed greens, seaweed, Japanese mayo and sriacha. Hot cha cha.

The gentleman in the paper hat behind the counter is the opposite of Dag or the grizzled cook in his favorite diner. Left to his own desires, Daniel Chong likes most of his sushi and sashimi pure and simple. But he respects his customers - and business - enough to make plenty of the Tampa rolls with fried grouper and bagel rolls with cream cheese they ask for, though he'll also take a dare.

"I listen to them, and sometimes they challenge me," he said.

Many sushi fans love chatting up the chef to brag about past greatnesses (the customer's, not the chef's). True devotees, like the diner who recommended I visit this shrine, listen to a pro like Chong, a happily mild-mannered Korean-American who grew up in Seattle, sharpened his knives in New York and settled in mid-Pinellas about 20 years ago.

He is the kind of wizard to whom one readily surrenders discretion (and wallet) for his omakase, the sushi way of saying "I am in your hands."

What distinguishes Chong is more than a fastidious eye for ingredients and smart presentation; he truly understands the zen of tasting.

Kiku's menu stumped me with too many unusual choices, even though they were out of the rarest, fattiest bluefin tuna ($7.95 per piece) and baby flounder (the biggest shipments are flown in Thursdays for the weekend), and the blue marlin was rejected as 3 days old.

My server and I still found plenty to pencil in and turned the order across the bar. Chong arrived and studied it with care, like a doctor reading charts or a general preparing to deploy, before deciding the best order of service for my palate.

First came the medallion of monkfish liver (if that freaks you out, call it ankimo), a wonderfully rich treat, the foie gras pate of the sea, rosy pink and intensely flavored, salted with black tobiko, crested with lettuce shreds and set off by a bright citric sauce of miso and mustard.

The driest cold sake, which I had already ordered, would be the perfect match, Chong noted. And the two together were a pleasure. Next sunomono (cucumber salad) for a palate cleanser.

Then two nigiri pads topped with ocean trout, a delicate sibling of salmon, with only a sprinkle of fine salt crystals and a splash of lemon. Then two Hokkaido scallops, topped with nothing; these slow-growing treasures of deep cold water are pure lushness. They need only the spark of wasabi on the rice ball to reconnect us to the Earth.

Finally Hawaiian white tuna, the plainest of my choices. Chong gave his okay to use the usual accompaniments: soy, wasabi and pickled ginger. The tuna still tasted like a cloud.

"Are you interested in dessert?" he asked. Not sweet cake, he explained, but cooked fish with a sweeter black bean sauce and a refined sweet sake to match. This was the only stumble of the night, closer to sweet and sour with crunchy bell peppers. Yet I left eagerly plotting my next visit.

There are tempura, teriyaki and bento boxes, but I quickly surrendered on my return after I learned that bluefin tuna, baby flounder and pink snapper from Hawaii (opakapaka) were in the house. Sure, and let's try soft-shell crab and sea urchin, too. And, since there's no abalone, we'll have the flat top sea snail.

Again the master prescribed the order and served them one by one, starting with the opakapaka in a smoky pool of soy sesame and yuzu. I usually consider the slippery sea urchin the standard of lush luxe, but it was shamed by the bluefin, the best tuna I have ever tasted: melts on your chopsticks.

Soft-shell crab, crisp and lightly battered, was good eating but nothing compared to the baby flounder, or fluke. It was a whole plate-size fish, fried to such a crisp that the spiny fins were as much fun as the perfect white flesh. Again the closest thing to a disappointment was the sea snail wokked up with mushrooms, chewy and a touch sweet.

It only underscored the chief lesson that sushi has taught us: to respect food in its simplest, purest form and to give the act of dining similar veneration.

That seems wildly improbable in the sunburnt madness of Clearwater Beach. But so does the spare grace of Kiku, where the tatami room feels like a zen rock garden and the staff treats us all with more gentility than we deserve.

Can a little raw fish lift us up?

Certainly. Dagwood always found room for a sardine. If only he'd known about tuna.


Kiku Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar

483 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach

Hours: Lunch, noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Phone: (727) 461-2633 Prices: $7.95-$25.95; sushi starts at $3.50

Details: Beer, wine and sake; no smoking; wheelchair access by elevator

Features: Carryout, local delivery at lunch

[Last modified May 19, 2004, 15:42:14]

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