When Natalia Levey announced that she was taking over the downtown Sarasota restaurant space that previously housed Lemon Tree Kitchen, I wasn’t surprised. Levey’s two Speaks Clam Bar restaurants have proven popular, and the Lemon Tree space was too nice to sit empty for long. What did surprise me was the direction of the new restaurant. Unlike Speaks, which recreates the vibe of Italian-American clam bars in the Northeast, Kojo mashes together Asian food with techniques and flavors from other parts of the world.
That means you’ll find traditional items like sushi, baos (steamed buns) and gyozas (steamed dumplings), but also nori “tacos” (taco-shaped packages made with crispy seaweed instead of tortillas and stuffed with seafood and rice) and a twist on classic Italian carbonara that substitutes chewy udon noodles for al dente spaghetti. All the dishes, which are divided into small and large dishes, are meant to be shared.
The best things on the menu are the most straightforward. A rock shrimp bao ($12)—a steamed bun folded around fried shrimp, cabbage, pickles and spicy mayonnaise—is fantastic. So is the mushroom rice pot ($38), which is finished at the table in a blisteringly hot iron pot that toasts the rice inside until it’s fragrant and crunchy. The rice is flavored with four types of mushrooms, tofu and bamboo shoots and swirled with a truffle emulsion. The server scrapes the edges of the pot and stirs the whole package together before placing it in a bowl. It’s addictive—pure melted mushroom flavor coating malty, crispy kernels of rice.
Those tacos, meanwhile, are a bit smaller than you’d expect for $12-$14, and the flavor doesn’t depart significantly from a regular sushi roll. The carbonara ($24) is made with guanciale (cured pork jowl), a softly cooked egg, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and shreds of seaweed. It’s very tasty, but I miss the aggressive shower of black pepper that gives carbonara its distinctive heat.
Plan on ordering a cocktail. The Kojo Old Fashioned ($12) follows the classic recipe, but uses bourbon infused with toasted brown rice, which gives the drink a less sweet, sake-like profile. The Kabuki Girl ($12), meanwhile, is a dry, refreshing vodka cocktail with a slightly bitter edge that comes from Campari, grapefruit juice, yuzu, tonic and pink peppercorns.
I love to see a restaurant doing something creative at the end of a meal, and dessert is worth sticking around for. Matcha doughnut holes ($9) are served with a sesame chocolate sauce and a condensed milk and matcha sauce that tastes like your favorite matcha latte cooked down until it’s sticky-sweet. A chocolate bar ($9) is paired with praline ice cream, candied hazelnut and a ginger-lime caramel and dusted with sea salt.
Kojo also deserves credit for posting an enticing kids’ menu. My younger son learned how to pronounce “karaage”—gar-AH-gay—($12), the ultra-crispy fried chicken popular in Japan. The kids’ burger ($12) comes on a steamed bao rather than a plain old burger bun.
On the south side of Sarasota, K-Nam Korean BBQ & Sushi is also combining Asian flavors with different approaches. Chef Justin Hung Kook opened K-Nam with co-owner Soung-Ja Nam last November after operating the business as a food truck for two years.
You’ll catch quesadillas ($12.20) and tacos ($9.80) made with bulgogi (Korean-style grilled beef), plus poke bowls, sushi rolls and Korean items. Kimchi fried rice ($11.70) is rich and assertive, with a thick, sticky texture improved by the gooey yolk of a fried egg laid on top. The haemul jeon ($14.90), Korea’s popular seafood and scallion pancake, is well fried and gets better when spiced with a hot dipping sauce.
K-Nam is less of a special occasion place than Kojo, where entrées run as expensive as $52. It’s more of a cozy neighborhood restaurant that you’ll keep coming back to when the fridge is empty. We need both types of places in our lives, and I’m glad both are around.
Kojo | 1289 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota, (941) 536-9717, eatkojo.com
K-Nam Korean BBQ & Sushi | 3440 Clark Road, Sarasota, (941) 312-9669