The Escobar Kitchen

The Escobar Kitchen (https://theescobarkitchen.com/) is one of my favorite kinds of restaurants for two reasons:

  1. It offers a really cool, creative fusion of two wildly different cuisines that you’d never think of combining, but I’m glad somebody did.
  2. It’s hidden inside a place that you wouldn’t expect, so not a free-standing restaurant where anyone can just come along and find it.  As a self-proclaimed food writer, I live for writing about restaurants like this, and I take great joy and pride in introducing people who might never find or even learn about them on their own.

In this case, The Escobar Kitchen is a food stall inside the Bravo Supermarket in Lake Nona.  Bravo is a supermarket chain that specializes in groceries from different Latin American countries, aimed at a Hispanic clientele (but anyone can, and should, shop there).  It has 71 locations throughout the United States, including several in the Orlando area.  I work near one Bravo and live near another, and I always find great stuff whenever I go, from frozen passion fruit puree to agua fresca powder mixes to fantastic tinned sardines nobody else carries to pizza empanadas a friend recommended.

But Lake Nona, a burgeoning new community all the way across town from me, has the biggest, nicest Bravo I’ve ever seen.  It took over a space that used to be an upscale Earth Fare supermarket after the location closed in 2020, at 13024 Narcoossee Road in Orlando.  Just to give you some context, all the Bravo locations I’ve ever been to have a cafeteria area where you can line up and get hot, fresh food to go — usually a mix of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican dishes, in huge portions.  You take your styrofoam box of food (kindly wrapped in plastic wrap to avoid leaks on the way home, because they fill it to capacity and beyond) and go eat it somewhere else.

But the Bravo in Lake Nona has a whole seating area, like a mall food court, and also features this business alongside their own cafeteria county.  Locally owned and operated by Chef Lewis Escobar and his brothers,  The Escobar Kitchen specializes in Latin Asian fusion — most notably sushi with a Puerto Rican twist.  That’s right, you heard it here first, true believers!

You can see from The Escobar Kitchen’s online menu that they serve dishes as diverse as “tereyaki wingz” [sic], General Tso ribs, arroz enchurrascado (a delicious-looking dish of yellow rice with skirt steak, sweet plantains, pigeon peas, and chimichurri sauce, served paella-style), and beautiful tempura-fried stuffed avocados.  They even offer familiar California rolls, spicy tuna rolls, and chicken rolls, for diners with a dearth of daring.

But the stars of the menu are the signature sushi rolls, inspired mashups of Latin and Asian flavors, presented in a way that I can only describe as sexy.  I ordered two of these rollicking rolls on my first-ever trip to Lake Nona, where I visited a cool couple at their gorgeous house to possibly buy an elliptical machine from them.  As desperately as I need to lose weight and get into better shape, of course my cross-town schlep had a culinary ulterior motive!

So here’s the hotness:
The presentation is beautiful, right?  I guaran-damn-tee that some hipster chef in Miami is going to come out with a similar menu at a hard-to-find restaurant with expensive valet parking and probably charge three times as much, if not more, and it probably won’t be as good.

This is the Tropical Sexy Salmon Roll ($14), with salmon, avocado, pineapple, cucumber, fried onions, and scallions, topped with marinated salmon and Escobar sauce.  You see?  It’s not just me that thinks these are sexy!  It’s even in the name.  Holy guacamole, this was a treat.  I could seriously eat this every day.   But ultimately, you could probably get a roll like that at any number of good sushi restaurants.  I wanted something with salmon or tuna to contrast with the next one, which is a better example of The Escobar Kitchen’s Latin-Asian fusion.  And the Tropical Sexy Salmon Roll tasted as good as it looks, so no regrets here, no shame in my game.

But get a load of the Paisa Roll ($15), a magnificent mélange of yellow rice, thin-sliced grilled churrasco steak, chorizo sausage, avocado and cream cheese, wrapped in sweet plantains and topped with chimichurri, honey wasabi, and a crunchy, crackly pork rind on the top.  This isn’t light, like so many sushi rolls are.  This is heavy in every possible way, but also awesome in every possible way.  Again, the presentation is killer-diller!

Here is a close-up of the two ravishing rolls I ordered, so you can really see the detail, all the ingredients, and the artful way everything was combined:

I hate that The Escobar Kitchen is literally across town from me, because this is the kind of restaurant I would try to drag local and visiting friends and work colleagues to, first to tempt them with the novelty and then to hook them on artful, creative fusion cuisine that satisfies, that isn’t just some Instagram-worthy hype.  It doesn’t get much more out of the way for me than Lake Nona, but this is definitely a reason to return, and for all my constant readers, the stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, to plan a Lake Nona mission of their own.  Tell me you’re not tempted!  Convince me you’re not considering it.  Maybe next time you need some groceries, skip your basic neighborhood Publix and bring your Bravo Team down to the Lake Nona Bravo, where shopping and dining can be a true pleasure.

(P.S. I made it back to Lake Nona over a month later with a rented U-Haul and bought the very cool couple’s elliptical machine, but didn’t have time to stop at The Escobar Kitchen again.  I’ll just have to return another time!)

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Kabuto Sushi & Grill

Kabuto Sushi & Grill (https://www.kabuto-sushi.com) is the closest sushi restaurant to our house, but it took us a while to try it.  It used to be a different sushi restaurant years ago, which we only ever went to once.  Once was enough.  It was really expensive and just okay, but Kabuto has a completely different menu, different management, different décor, different everything.  I ordered takeout, but the dining room was gorgeous — very modern and sexy, especially for a sushi restaurant in uber-suburban Winter Springs, next door to our regular Publix where everyone knows me.

I ordered takeout for that first visit to Kabuto, starting with a pretty typical eel roll ($10), with baked eel and cucumber inside the sushi rice and a little dipping cup of sticky, sweet eel sauce on the side:

My wife thought the Kabuto’s summer roll ($16) sounded interesting, with tuna, salmon, a krab stick, avocado, and mango, wrapped in spring mix leaves and rice paper, with house-made raspberry wine sauce on the side.  It was an interesting combination, especially with the sauce, that was like a sweet and sticky vinaigrette dressing, and no rice to speak of.

I ended up using the sauce as dressing on a homemade salad a few days later, since she isn’t into sauces and dips anyway.  It was perfectly fine, but I like my sushi rolls with rice, so I probably wouldn’t order this one again.

I’m glad I ordered a spicy tuna crunch roll and a spicy salmon crunch roll ($8 each; below left and center), both with tempura flakes inside to give them that gentle crunch, and we really enjoyed both of those.
But there were two highlights, even though these other rolls were solid.  One was the mango passion roll that my wife chose ($16; on the right side in the above photo), with yellowtail, salmon, and avocado inside, topped with more yellowtail and salmon, plus mango salsa.  It was AWESOME.  What a great combination.  I always order mango in my poke bowls with tuna and/or salmon when it is available, and it worked so well here.

My personal favorite wasn’t a roll at all, but a selection from the “cold small plates” part of the menu: spicy tuna crispy rice ($12), with cubes of deep-fried rice topped with spicy tuna, avocado, masago, scallions, sesame seeds, and a sweet glaze.  It came with four pieces, which we split evenly, but I could have eaten two hundred of them, seriously.

I love ramen almost as much as I love sushi, but my wife doesn’t always share my love of ramen (aside from the instant stuff).  I was surprised when she suggested we order a bowl of the tonkotsu ramen ($13) to split, since I figured she wouldn’t be interested, but I was half-considering ordering one just for myself.  In the end, I liked it more than she did and ended up eating most of it, which was fine with me, but I was relieved she suggested it in the first place.

I really liked how rich and creamy the pork bone broth was, how tender the thin slices of chashu pork and bamboo shoots were, and how springy and chewy the noodles were.  I always think I’m going to hate the bamboo in tonkotsu ramen, expecting it to be tough and fibrous like a cross between chewing on celery sticks and saxophone reeds, but it is more like al dente lasagna noodle sheets.  The soft-boiled egg halves were cooked to gooey perfection as well, although I chomped them both rather than letting the yolks mix into the tonkotsu broth.  The broth was served on the side in our takeout order, which was the ideal way to do it, to keep those great noodles from getting soggy.

I had no idea Kabuto also has a happy hour menu, since it wasn’t on the website.  If you dine in between 4:30 and 7:00 PM, you could get much cheaper sushi rolls, and if I had known, we might have done that instead of ordering takeout.  Here’s a photo, because the people need to know about this great deal!
In fact, we returned two weeks later to dine in and take advantage of happy hour, since the food was so good.

My wife started out with two pieces of escolar sashimi ($4) and two pieces of tako (octopus) sashimi ($4):

Then we went hard on those happy hour rolls!  I got the same spicy tuna crunch roll and spicy salmon crunch roll we liked so much at home ($5 each; right center and bottom), as well as the full-priced mango passion roll we loved (top left):

We also got the Philly roll ($4; top right), the fire dragon roll ($5, bottom left), and the lobster sensation roll ($5, center).  I always gravitate toward “Japanese bagel” rolls, with smoked salmon and cream cheese (the food of my people!), but the Philly roll was regular (non-smoked) salmon with cream cheese.  Still very pleasing.  This was my first fire dragon roll, with salmon, asparagus, and avocado inside, and topped with yellowtail, thin-sliced serrano peppers, and dollops of “house-made kobachi sauce,” as the menu said.  It looked and tasted more like sriracha to me.

Finally, the lobster sensation roll isn’t listed on the regular menu, but it contained lobster mixed with cream cheese and was lightly fried in tempura batter.  Really good stuff.  I’m sorry I didn’t take more close-ups of this beautiful sushi tray.

There are also daily specials at Kabuto that we didn’t order, but I snapped a photo of the menu from the day we went, since they aren’t on the website either:

There is no shortage of good sushi restaurants in and around Orlando, but Kabuto Sushi & Grill is definitely the closest to us.   It may not be super-upscale, but that isn’t The Saboscrivner’s style anyway, and it is still a really nice place with fresh, delicious, unpretentious sushi and ramen, tucked away in Winter Springs, where foodies rarely dare to venture.  Please dare.  In the meantime, we will keep enjoying this friendly neighborhood restaurant moments from our home.

Kombu Sushi Ramen

Sushi is one of my favorite foods, but I rarely eat it because you pay for quality, and that means decent sushi isn’t cheap, and next-level sushi is expensive.  Plus, it takes so much sushi to fill me up, it isn’t a cost-effective meal for me (excluding my beloved all-you-can-eat Mikado in Altamonte Springs, which I still contend is one of the best bangs for your buck anywhere).

A few weeks ago, my wife and I agreed that sushi sounded good for dinner, and I asked her to choose one of three sushi restaurants near us to order takeout from: two we hadn’t been to, and one we hadn’t been to in a few years.  She looked at all three menus online and chose one of the new ones that opened earlier this year, not far from us: Kombu Sushi Ramen (https://www.facebook.com/KombuSushiRamen/) on Aloma Avenue in a less-traveled part of Winter Park.  We went a little bit nuts with ordering, but the sushi ended up being just what we dreamed of for far too long.  (The last time I had sushi was earlier this year, while we both spent 30 days together in the hospital.  That sushi was one of the best things I ate from the hospital cafeteria, but I was looking forward to something far better, in more pleasant surroundings.)

Kombu is in a little building that looks like a house, and it probably used to be a house a long time ago.  Once I arrived, I only had to wait a few more minutes for my takeout order to be ready.  The dining room was very nice, modern, and clean.  It was busy on an early weekend evening, always a good sign.  The sushi chefs were definitely hustling behind the sushi bar, and the hostess was kind enough to offer me a glass of water while I waited.  It was a nice place I would like to see succeed.

Always health-conscious, my wife gravitates toward sashimi, thin slices of fresh, raw seafood without the usual rice, to avoid some carbs (or preferably, to save the carbs for dessert).  She ordered this sashimi dinner ($24.95), with 20 assorted pieces of fresh fish and shellfish slices selected by the chef.  This lovely arrangement included tuna, salmon, escolar (AKA white tuna or butterfish), surimi (AKA “krab,” white fish processed to look and taste like crab), and one of her favorite seafoods, tako (AKA octopus, at the 12:00 position).  She really loves octopus, whether it is grilled, fried, or served like this (not raw but actually cooked; thanks to a sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerino for correcting me on this).   

Below on the left, you can see my order of mackerel sashimi ($4.50 for the three shimmering silver pieces of fish).  I always love saba (mackerel) because it tastes like pickled herring, with a little bit of sweetness and a light, vinegary tang.  Next to that, in the back, is my wife’s extra escolar sashimi ($5 for the three white pieces), and our bagel roll ($5.95), a favorite of mine, with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and avocado. 

Here are two more rolls we shared, a crunch roll ($5.50) and a crunchy spicy salmon roll ($6.95).  The crunch roll (left) included krab, spicy mayo, avocado, and tempura “chips” on the top, and it is drizzled with kabayaki sauce, a sweet soy-based glaze, similar to eel sauce. 
The crunchy spicy salmon roll (right) was a delicious blend of strong flavors and interesting textures, with spicy salmon, tempura chips on the inside, and drizzled with one of my favorite condiments (and not just for sushi, but especially for sushi), spicy mayo.

And this is one of my favorites anywhere, the volcano roll ($12.95).  This majestic mountain was built around a sushi roll containing tuna and cream cheese, topped with avocado, “baked krab special,” tempura chips, spicy mayo, kabayaki sauce, and tobiko, the tiny, salty, delicate orange pearls that are flying fish roe.  My wife liked this too, but I had been craving sushi for so long, it hit the spot so perfectly.   

Here’s another angle of the volcano roll, so you can see the rolls themselves.  All sushi is painstakingly prepared, with a lot of effort that goes into a beautiful presentation.   

The artful presentation is part of the price of admission right there, but I thought the prices at Kombu were all very reasonable for the good quality of this sushi and sashimi.  There are definitely fancier sushi places that are also more “authentic,” with less krab, less spicy mayo, fewer rolls in general.  There’s a time and a place for those upscale and authentic restaurants, at least for some, but this is the kind of sushi I know the best and love the most.  I’d consider Kombu more of an “everyday luxury,” and I mean that in the best possible way.  It isn’t exclusive or precious or snooty — it’s wonderful, fresh food made with precision and care, that you can enjoy whenever you want to do something really nice for yourself.  For me, believe it or not, that isn’t often enough.

Because Kombu has sushi and ramen in its title, I felt like I had to sample the ramen too, in order to write a worthy review.  I defaulted to my old favorite, tonkotsu ramen, but chose the mayu tonkotsu ramen here ($13.50) and asked them to hold the kikurage, those skinny little alien-looking mushrooms.  Note the noodles, two chashu pork slices, two ajitama egg halves, menma (AKA seasoned bamboo shoots), green onions, and lots of crunchy fried diced garlic.  The fried garlic and black garlic oil are what makes the mayu tonkotsu different from the regular tonkotsu, which comes with shredded red ginger instead.  As any restaurant packing up soup in a takeout order should, they packaged the tonkotsu broth in a separate container so the noodles wouldn’t get soggy on my way home.

Here is the mayu tonkotsu ramen with the broth added.  It was delicious, because you can’t ever go wrong with tonkotsu ramen (unless of course you’re a vegetarian or strictly kosher or halal, due to the broth being made from pork bones simmering for days).  My only issue with this takeout feast from Kombu is that the broth wasn’t the rich, creamy, opaque pork bone broth I’m used to from tonkotsu ramen.  This was more of a watery broth than I was expecting.  It was still tasty, salty, and porky, but not thick or creamy like I’ve gotten spoiled by.

So that’s my long-overdue review of Kombu Sushi Ramen.  I would happily return anytime for the sushi, but for ramen, tonkotsu or otherwise, I would probably sooner return to Ramen Takagi, just five minutes east on Aloma, still my favorite ramen spot.  Hey, that would be a great double feature dinner right there!

Chain Reactions: Sus Hi Eatstation

I am a sucker for extravagant sushi rolls and poke bowls that I get to customize myself, with the ingredients of my choice — different fish, vegetables, toppings, condiments.  They’re beautiful to the eye, refreshing, delicious, and you can go as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  I’ve reviewed and sung the praises of two of my favorite local restaurants: Poke Hana and Bento Cafe, but I recently paid my first visit to the homegrown chain Sus Hi Eatstation (https://sushieatstation.com/), founded here in Orlando by local couple Robert and Teresa Ly.

I don’t know why it took me so long.  Sus Hi Eatstation has several locations around town, with the “build your own” model popularized by Subway, Chipotle, and so many other successful fast food and fast casual restaurants.  They are also vaguely ninja-themed, and as an ’80s kid who grew up loving G.I. Joe and Daredevil comics, I have nothing but love for ninjas (and G.I. Joe, and Daredevil) to this day.  If anything, I wish they leaned into the ninja theme even more, especially in this era of everyone wearing masks in public.  (But don’t worry, everyone working at Sus Hi when I visited was wearing normal masks.)

I went to the closest location in Altamonte Springs, and  I should mention that at least during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sus Hi Eatstation has customers place all orders from a touchscreen kiosk or online through the website.  When I got there, I used the kiosk, and they had a pump bottle of hand sanitizer right next to it, so have no fear.  At the front of the store, the dutiful staff members (who really could have been dressed like ninjas, I’m just sayin’) are meticulously assembling orders from the mise en place ingredients arranged in front of them, just like so many other fast casual eateries.

I have to admit it was a particular special that drew me in that day.  One of Sus Hi’s specialties is sushi burritos wrapped in huge flour tortillas, and for a $1.50 upcharge, you can get them crusted with panko bread crumbs and deep-fried so they have a crunchy outer layer, but the sushi inside is still cool and refreshing.  That already sounded amazing — certainly not traditional, but a nice, fusiony presentation.  But now, they are running a special where you can get the burrito covered with crushed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and deep-fried for a $3 upcharge.  Yes, I’m not proud, but as soon as I learned that was a current menu option, I had to have it!

The basic burrito is $8.50, and I chose a base of white rice.  (The other options are brown rice and lettuce.)  When you customize a Sus Hi burrito, you get to select three proteins.  I had already studied the menu in advance, and even though they offer steak and chicken, I went to a place called Sus Hi because I wanted sushi.  I selected tuna (a 50-cent upcharge), salmon (a 75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab, which is shredded surimi tossed in spicy mayo.  I added on cream cheese, cucumbers, shredded purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning.  It was gorgeous!

Sus Hi allows you to get up to three different sauces with a burrito, and I opted for sauces on the side so I could taste everything better.  The bright orange sauce on the top left is an additional sauce that comes special with the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos burrito.  I thought it was going to be like a spicy queso, but it was more of a very spicy mayo, with the intensity of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  The paler sauce next to it is classic creamy, tangy white sauce.  Below we have orange fire sauce, which was like a smoky chili mayo, probably with chipotle flavor added, and the slightly lighter orange sauce on the bottom right is standard spicy mayo, which I unapologetically love with my sushi and poke.

Sus Hi also offers regular and sweet soy sauces, teriyaki sauce, ponzu sauce, sweet chili sauce, mango habanero sauce, regular sriracha (meh), and yellow sriracha (better), among others.

The burrito was HUGE, and I am making a conscious effort to eat smaller portions in 2021, so I got two meals out of it.  The Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted outer surface wasn’t quite as crunchy as I expected, nor as flamin’ hot, but I still enjoyed it.  It was a novelty, something I’m glad I tried but wouldn’t order again.  I suspect the regular panko-crusted burrito will probably have a better texture.

But while I was at Sus Hi for my first time, I figured I might as well try a bowl too.  I selected a regular bowl ($9.95) with brown rice as the base, in my half-hearted, conflicted attempt to eat slightly healthier.  I usually don’t like brown rice, but theirs wasn’t bad at all!  Again, I selected the same three proteins: tuna (50-cent upcharge), salmon (75-cent upcharge), and spicy krab.  I kept my toppings pretty similar to the burrito: cream cheese (you can see the little scoop near the bottom), cucumber, purple cabbage, scallions, mango, tempura flakes, sweet potato flakes, and nori seasoning, but I also had them add sliced pickled jalapenos, crunchy noodles, and pickled ginger.  Hey, why not, right?

I swear there is tuna, salmon, and krab under all that in the paper bowl.  In fact, I was really impressed by the size of the “regular” bowl, and how generous they were with everything they put in it.  A lot of places will scrimp on toppings and especially proteins, but I feel like this is a terrific deal — a huge portion of a lot of fresh, tasty food.

I got the same three sauces on the side with this bowl: spicy mayo, white sauce, and fire sauce.  In the future, now that I’ve tried those sauces separately, I’d be more likely to just order one or more on top of the bowl, for ease of mixing everything together.  You can also purchase Sus Hi’s sauces in bottles if you fall in love with any of them.  I wish more restaurants would offer their sauces, condiments, and dressings for sale, but it never hurts to ask!

After all these years, I finally see why Sus Hi Eatstation is so popular, with such a devoted following around Orlando.  People love sushi, and they love freedom of choice.  I’m sure I will return, probably going back for a similar version of everything I tried for this review.  I don’t know how long the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos-crusted sushi burrito will last, but if that was on your bucket list, I strongly encourage you to cross it off while you can!

Itamae Densho

I just recently learned about the existence of Itamae Densho (https://itamae-densho.square.site/), a Japanese restaurant affiliated with local favorite (and Saboscrivner favorite) Swine & Sons inside The Local Butcher & Market, a gourmet butcher shop and market in Winter Park.  Local chef Denni Cha set up there a week ago, creating beautiful donburi, bowls of sushi-seasoned rice topped with stunningly gorgeous arrays of raw fish, fresh and pickled vegetables, actual flowers, and so much more.  I’m a huge fan of poke and sushi, but I’m used to very casual build-your-own poke bowl places, and I’ve never done a full-on omakase dinner experience.  So even though these donburi look almost too pretty to eat, I wanted to destroy something beautiful.

I placed my online order on the above website late last night and paid in advance with my credit card.  The automated e-mail told me my order would be ready after 5:50 PM today, and since I grew up in a home where “Early is on time and on time is late,” I was there right on the dot.  I met Denni, who said they would just need some time to assemble everything so it would be at its freshest, and I appreciated that he didn’t have it already made, sitting there waiting for me.  I was out the door with three bowls packed in recyclable, dishwasher-safe, microwave-safe containers in about ten minutes.

This is the Salmon Oyako donburi ($16) that my wife ate most of.  The website describes it as including “Wild King Salmon Tataki, House Cured Salmon Roe, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”20200711_182329

Note the little yellow flowers and the beautiful green romanesco cauliflower, which has fascinating fractal patterns.  It looks like sci-fi food, and I always remember Rey actually eating some in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.  The salmon roe popped lightly in our mouths like delicate, salty, fishy bubbles, and the salmon was incredibly fresh.

This was the “Tuna x Tuna” donburi ($15), with “Tuna Sashimi, Tuna, Densho-Style Tuna, Yuzu-Kosho Aiolo, Tobiko, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”20200711_182309

I love tuna, so I was in tuna heaven with this one.  I also liked the seaweed salad, which had a nice crunch and a subtle saltiness from soy sauce.  The leafy green surrounding the roe in the above photo had an interesting bitter taste.  But those thin slices of pepper are serrano peppers with the seeds and ribs intact, so they are no joke.  I’m used to jalapeños, which are further down the Scoville scale, heat-wise.  Plus, I usually remove the seeds and ribs when I prepare jalapeños at home, always while wearing disposable gloves (a lesson learned the hard way, after one horrific incident I won’t go into in this space, in mixed company).  Anyway, before too long, we were like a couple of kids: her picking out the serrano slices for me, and me picking the tiny flowers off with my chopsticks for her.  (I don’t think they added much in the way of flavor, but damn, were they cute!)

And this was the Densho-Style chirashi donburi ($18), with “Chef’s Selection of sashimi grade fish with various garnished flavor profiles, house-cured salmon roe, unagi, fresh and pickled veggies, served over sushi rice.”
20200711_182352

Aside from tuna, salmon, and the roe, I think I recognized hamachi (yellowtail) in this bowl, plus more of the other ingredients.  The sushi rice was excellent, and even my wife, who normally doesn’t like the sweet rice vinegar flavor in sushi rice, enjoyed it.  My wife was the first one to discover that all three bowls had crispy fried onions near the bottom, underneath the rice.  She doesn’t normally like onions at all, but she enjoyed what these brought to the table.  As for me, I love onions, so I was very content.

I’m sure there is a grand tradition of this beautiful presentation in Japanese cuisine, but we usually don’t go to those high-end sushi restaurants.  However, my wife and I were both reminded of the award-winning restaurant Noma, in Copenhagen, Denmark.  No, we’ve never been there either, but it has been featured in many food and travel shows, including the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and No Reservations, David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, and Phil Rosenthal’s Somebody Feed Phil.  Those are all awesome shows that any Saboscrivner reader would love, if you don’t already.  Noma’s chef, René Redzepi, prepares these picturesque plates of fancy food that look like tiny terrariums, or dioramas for fairies and elves to live in.  He uses lots of edible flowers and plants to build a little scene, and that’s what Denni Cha’s lovely donburi bowls made us think of.  As long as he’s set up at The Local Butcher & Market, preparing these dishes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, I encourage all of you to place some preorders on his website.  But do it early, because I have a feeling he may only make so many of these every day, and you don’t want to miss out.

Chain Reactions: Bento

It is 2003, and a really hip and cool restaurant empire has started in the most unlikely of places: Gainesville, home of the University of Florida (GO GATORS!), and where your friendly neighborhood Saboscrivner came of age, played in some bands, and earned a few degrees in the late ’90s and early ’00s.  The fast-casual pan-Asian restaurant Bento Cafe (https://www.eatatbento.com/) opened its first location in the north central Florida college town in 2003, the last year I lived up there.  I remember going there on a particularly great day, that final summer before my final graduation.  It was the first place I ever tried beef bulgogi, udon noodles, Thai sweet chili sauce, and boba tea.  (Not all in the same meal, though.  My head would have exploded from the pure joy of discovery, and I also would not have been able to afford all that back then.)

It is 2009, and Bento Cafe has expanded into downtown Orlando.  I have already been living here for five years.  On the day of my wedding, while my fiancee was otherwise occupied, I go there for lunch with a group of my friends, killing time before the best night of my life.  We take over a long table, over-order (mostly sushi rolls), share everything, and reflect on how much our lives have all changed for the better — maybe mine most of all.  The day remains a blur, but the food was good and the company was some of the best ever.

It is 2019, and there are now 14 Bento locations, including three in Gainesville alone and four in Orlando, including Winter Park.  My wife and I go back and forth between the UCF and Winter Park locations, living about halfway in between them.  Both are solid, dependable favorites, and it’s much easier than going downtown and fighting for paid parking spaces.  The food is always good, and the price is right.  You can get something hot or cold, raw or cooked, as healthy or unhealthy as you want.  You order at the counter, at least at these two locations (downtown Orlando used to have table service and still may), and then they walk your food out to your table.

Hot food comes in the form of rice bowls (white or brown rice), noodle bowls (lo mein, ramen, or really great thick udon), or bento boxes.  You choose the dish you want, and if you want chicken, steak, shrimp, or tofu as your protein.  I particularly like the spicy beef bulgogi and “Pao Pao” spicy cream-glazed chicken, served stir-fried with green and red bell peppers.  I’ll take either of those topping udon noodle bowls, please.

But I’m always drawn back to the build-your-own poke bowls, because I love poke so very much.  (See my 2018 review of Poke Hana, another local favorite that made my Top Five favorite dishes of that year in Orlando Weekly.)  At Bento Cafe, you can get your poke over white or brown rice, mixed greens, or now noodles, a relatively new choice.  Last time I went, for the purposes of writing this review, they were out of noodles, so I stuck with the standard, white rice.  I ordered a large bowl ($14) and got tuna, salmon, and smoked salmon, with additions of mango, avocado, cucumber, masago, and wonton chips (you can choose up to five from a longer list), toppings of crispy fried onion and fried garlic (you can choose up to two from a separate list), and spicy mayo for my sauce of choice.  I’ll put spicy mayo on almost anything; I don’t even care anymore.IMG_0055It was, and is, absolutely delicious — so many flavors and textures and colors that harmonize together like a major chord that you eat, especially when I mix everything up in the bowl.  The only dissonant note came from the wonton chips, which were a little too large and crunchy to add to the harmony.  Next time I’d leave those out and get tempura flakes instead, for a more subtle crunch.

Here’s a poke bowl I assembled and photographed on an earlier visit.  Looks like I got tempura flakes and cream cheese in this one instead of the wonton chips, and it was probably even better this way.DSC01736

And here’s a poke bowl my wife ordered at some point in the past:
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My wife is usually drawn to their sushi.  She used to love a beautiful sashimi platter they made there, but that is no longer on the menu.  On this most recent visit, she got the sushi combo box ($11) which is a real deal with an 8-piece California roll, two 4-piece “classic” rolls of her choice, and a salad with ginger dressing.  She chose the rainbow roll, with tuna, salmon, yellowtail, krab, avocado, cucumber, and masago, and the Florida roll, with tuna, salmon, cream cheese, avocado, and masago.  I believe it also includes some kind of noodles, but as I said, they were out of noodles that day, so it looks like they doubled up on her salad (much to her chagrin).IMG_0054

They used to have a roll we both loved called the Envy roll.  This roll had EVERYTHING: salmon, tuna, krab delite, and avocado, and it was topped with kiwi, masago, and sweet chili sauce.  Unfortunately, the Envy roll has been gone from the Bento menu for several years, but we still talk about it!  It has been interesting to watch them refining the menu over time.  There are definitely fewer sushi rolls now, but as poke became a thing (and I’m so glad it did), we have more freedom of choice in being able to build our own poke bowls, and that’s a trade-off I can live with.

It is 2020, and I continue to love Bento Cafe and include it in our regular restaurant rotation.  I’m always in the mood for it, and even my wife can always find something good to eat, any time, no matter what she’s in the mood for.  That’s the highest praise of all.

Mikado Japanese Sushi Buffet

Hey, folks.  Sorry about the delay.  I’m working on the most important writing assignment of my life, which unfortunately has nothing to do with restaurant reviews or food in general.  I have a few recent reviews I need to share when I take breaks, so don’t give up on me — I’d never give up on you!

I should start out by saying that I like sushi a lot.  I don’t eat it or write about it as much as I do sandwiches, burgers, or pasta, because I rarely partake.  I consider sushi a rare treat and almost a “luxury meal” for a few reasons:

  • It is so beautifully, artfully prepared,
  • It is difficult to make well at home (as opposed to sandwiches or pasta) so I leave it to the professionals, and
  • It ain’t cheap!

The expense is usually what keeps me from gorging on gorgeous fresh nigiri or being ridiculously ravenous for radiant rolls.  The fact that it takes so much sushi to fill me up can become a dangerous proposition, especially at an upscale establishment.  And these ultra-elite sushi restaurants that promise you the best omakase dining experience ever — I’m sure they’re wonderful, but too rich for my blood.

I almost didn’t take note when some of the good folks on the Orlando Foodie Forum on Facebook recommended Mikado Japanese Sushi Buffet, an all-you-can-eat affair in Altamonte Springs.  (https://www.mikadofl.com/altamontesprings)  My wife has never been a fan of buffet dining, so we almost never go to them.  I grew up eating at Chinese buffets throughout Miami with my dad, and I regularly visited Gainesville’s all-you-can-eat Chinese and pizza buffets during my college years, when I was all about quantity over quality.  They helped keep me alive through a few degrees!

These days, I can’t eat like I used to, and I at least attempt to be a little healthier through portion control and exercise, so all-you-can-eat is less of a draw for me.  Plus, I can’t help but be a little more skeptical about all-you-can-eat sushi, after reading Kitchen Confidential and getting older and coming more to terms with my own mortality.

But Mikado’s sushi is extremely fresh and extremely high quality, they assured me.  And there’s a huge variety to choose from — always music to my ears.  If you go for dinner, they even have sashimi (fresh slices of fish on their own, without rice to fill you up), and everything is included for only $25 per person!  WHAAAAT?  How can this be?  The Foodie Forum rarely steers me wrong, so I realized I hadn’t had sushi in forever, and this Mikado had to be worth a try.  My longtime readers know I’ll try anything once, and usually twice, just to be sure.  I had an afternoon off, so I told my wife we’d arrive at 5:00 when Mikado opened for dinner, to be there first when everything was freshly-made.

And I’m so glad we gave it a try, because it was AWESOME.  The sumptuous variety and quality of the sushi seriously exceeded my expectations.  Even my wife was extremely impressed (and relieved).  Sushi chefs were hard at work behind the buffet, replenishing everything.  The preparations were artful, and everything was well-labeled so you knew what each piece was.  (Of course, it was difficult to keep it all straight once things made it to our plates.)

This was my first trip to the buffet:

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I count 22 pieces on this plate, each one better than the last.  I love rolls, and they offered some really creative and intricate ones — no boring California rolls for me (although if you like those, they had them too)!  I know purists may scoff at rolls, but I love the blend of flavors, textures, and colors and the beautiful presentation.  They may not be traditional like nigiri, but I couldn’t get enough of them.

And this was my second trip, when I discovered the sashimi, as well as marinated tuna and salmon crudo, ceviche, and different chilled seafood salads.  As far as the sashimi, the mackerel (saba) is always my favorite because it reminds me of pickled herring, one of the foods of my people, but they were all top-notch.

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Are there 18 pieces on this plate?  Sharp-eyed readers may come up with a more accurate count.

Here is the buffet menu, to further tantalize and tempt:
https://www.mikadofl.com/altamontemenu

I love raw oysters, and they have them too.  Yes, I’ve heard about the “months-with-an-R” warning, but the only reason I didn’t try an oyster was because I came for the sushi.  They had plenty of delicious-looking hot foods too, but I was a man on a mission, and that mission was to eat all the sushi I could.

We did indulge in dessert, simply because it was there, and it looked so pretty.  My wife had their creme brulee that was more like flan, and I had tiny tastes of tiramisu, banana pudding, and mango mousse cake.  But that was it for me.  I don’t remember the last time I was so full, but it was totally worth it.

I should note that Mikado charges you a fee for wasting food, especially if you load up on nigiri pieces, eat the fish, and leave the rice over. I have no problem with this, as I hate to see food wasted under any circumstances. Pace yourself, scope out your options before loading up your plate, try small tastes of everything in case you don’t like something, and don’t be a jerk who snatches up half the buffet and leaves so much of it behind.

We ate like kings for 25 bucks each, and Mikado’s quality definitely matched the quantity — rare for an all-you-can-eat buffet setting, even rarer for good sushi.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  Even if you’re a regular at your favorite hip, trendy, upscale sushi restaurant, give Mikado a chance, and I promise you will be pleasantly surprised and very possibly blown away.  You can’t beat it.  I’ve been wanting to go back ever since, which is the best possible recommendation I can give any restaurant.