Food & Wine

By John Bancroft Photography by Matt McCourtney October 1, 2009

Raw Delight

Don’t even think of tipping soy sauce into the little saucer in front of you until you’ve tasted the sushi just as it comes, pristine and perfect, off Chef Matsu’s gleaming blade.

The sushi and other dishes at Vizen Japanese Restaurant (in the Gateway restaurant row near Gulf Gate in south Sarasota) come to table already impeccably flavored, some sauced, some not. We purred through an entire epiphanic evening without once having recourse to soy or wasabi, although Colette did add a thin slice of fresh ginger to the incredibly beautiful raw salmon draped gracefully over a modest lozenge of vinegar rice. It didn’t need it, mind you, that’s just the kind of hairpin Colette is.

We are sushi fiends, devouring it in our hometown and when we travel. Most of the time we look for seats at the bar to watch the chefs at work, and we usually have that little saucer full of wasabi-spiked soy before the first morsels arrive. Which is all well and good until you happen upon one of those rare jewels like Bar Masa in New York—or Vizen right here in Sarasota.

I was trying to think of how to describe the difference between the many perfectly good sushi places and Vizen when it occurred to me that the French model provides an apt analogy.

In a city like Paris or Lyon, there will be a wealth of wonderful neighborhood bistros serving delicious, mostly traditional, thoroughly satisfying bourgeois fare. Then there will be the temples of gastronomy, the Michelin-starred restaurants offering not just to feed you well but to knock your socks off.

That is the difference between some of our local favorites, like neighborhood fixture Ocean Star in Holmes Beach or that scene called Pacific Rim in Sarasota, which we’ll assign the role of bistro, and Vizen, where the chef elevates a good thing to the level of great.

Vizen, like many another deceptive storefront restaurant, is nondescript outside but a haven of tranquility and understated style within. The first room you enter is cool and calm, just right for tête-a-tête dining or a conversation-filled evening with friends. The second room is just as serene, but front and center is the sushi bar at which Chef Matsu reigns.

Four pairs of stylish high-backed seats line the bar, but we were happy to be shown to a table that provided not only ringside seats but ample room for the chef’s gorgeous creations to be properly displayed and cooed over. On the wall are the day’s many specials, one panel devoted to small plates from the kitchen and two more to sushi, sashimi and rolls.

From the board we selected first the chef’s Special Jewel Roll ($15), described as cooked tuna in miso sauce with colorful caviars and spicy mayo. The description did not prepare us for the vision that arrived at table or for the subtly intense flavors that swept over our palates as we employed our chopsticks. The roll had been sliced into eight beautiful bites wrapped in fine rice paper and topped with a thin slice of radish, in turn topped with dollops of black or green or red or pale yellow roe. The spicy mayo took the form of four discrete swooshes of sauce on the large white platter that showed off the jewels to perfection. I suspect the chef might have shot us if we’d reached for the soy sauce, and he would have been right to do so.

The evening moved from triumph to triumph. Next came a Spider Roll from the standing list ($8) that wrapped nori around crispy fried softshell crab, fresh asparagus, avocado and smelt roe judiciously spiked with the spicy mayo, the whole displaying an enviable balance of flavors and textures. These superb rolls proved to be the perfect preface to a platter of possibly the best sushi we’ve ever tasted, our two-piece orders selected from both the standing list and the chalkboard.

Two varieties stood out even in this celestial company: madai ($7), which paired a delicate Asian snapper that tasted of wild ocean spray with a joyful soy mousse and accented the fish and rice with a dab of zesty Japanese pickle, and smoked scallop ($6.50), which combined, improbably but wonderfully, the pleasures of sushi with the savor, but not the substance, of smokehouse bacon.

Fresh salmon ($5) was just that: a spectacular cut of rosy fish over a tiny rice lozenge. Not a thing in the world needed to be added. Freshwater eel ($5) was an extra generous cut of smoked and sweet-sauced wriggler, while the conch ($5) was simply fresh and sweet, somehow both tender and crunchy at once.

Believe it or not, we followed this extravaganza with a small plate from the kitchen, a dish our trio of delightfully solicitous servers assured us was something very special. Indeed it was. The dish, called Kama ($12), brings to table the cooked cheekflesh of a yellowtail tuna still adhering to the great fish’s jawbone atop a ginger-spiked brown sauce. Separating meat from bone can be a challenge for those of us who have to remember how to use chopsticks every time we encounter them, but the wait trio kindly invited us to just pick up the succulent treat in our fingers and gnaw.

We were too stuffed for dessert, and so ordered hot green tea instead, but the chef was not through with us. As we sipped contentedly, our trio of attendants arrived bearing Chef Matsu’s compliments and goblets showcasing perfect little dollops of housemade orange ice cream and rich chocolate mousse sprinkled with miniscule, crunchy rice cookies. Thus was a flawless evening at table capped with just the right grace note.


Vizen Japanese Restaurant

6559 Gateway Ave., Sarasota

Reservations: (941) 926-0830

Hours: dinner 5-10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday-Thursday; until 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Cards: Visa, MC, AmEx

Handicapped accessible: yes

Parking: lot or street

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