A Raw Deal

Splashing around in my kayak makes me hungry as a shark. And like a shark, nothing will satisfy my appetite but very fresh seafood. I want pink shrimps, or a great grouper sandwich, or most especially, any manner of sushi, from great gobs of toro, cool and silky as butter, to yellow fin tuna. Sushi, when it's right, is the very essence of the sea, as fresh and subtle as a fine mist of saltwater. How do I determine when it's right? I look for an absence of aroma, save for the ephemeral breath of freshness. A "fishy" smell is an alarm bell. I look for firmness, a sort of toothsome quality, in the flesh. Limp shrimp? Watch out. I look for moist, fresh, vinegar-seasoned rice that holds together, yet retains the individuality of each grain. And I look for a true sense of the delicious, almost a given when the chef is using fresh, quality ingredients.

Sad to say, my dinner at No. 9 Bangkok, only the second sushi bar to open in downtown St. Pete, failed on all criteria. No. 9, a long-established Thai restaurant, recently added an adjoining, full-size Japanese restaurant with a 15-seat sushi bar. I heard good things about it opening week, but a few months later there are signs that things have changed. My first concern was being the only customer at 7 p.m. on a Thursday evening. Did locals know something I didn't? A sushi bar with a steady flow of patrons also has a steady flow of fish; a sure sign things will be fresh. With no other diners in sight, I had to wonder how long ingredients had been languishing in the display case.

My second concern: a dirty dining room. I seated myself at a glass-top table, set for dining, resting my left hand on the greasy back of an empty chair, my right elbow on the tabletop, in a patch of sticky syrup. Cleanliness is essential to good sushi. After all, you want to be assured the raw foods you're eating are both fresh and sanitary. It's easier by far to clean a dining room than a kitchen. When the one I can see isn't sanitary I start to worry about the other.

My third concern: lackadaisical service. Preparing sushi is an exercise in precise attention to details. The discipline of paying attention carries over into all areas of a great sushi bar. This night, with only four diners in the Thai restaurant, and myself in the sushi bar, I thought the staff would jump to attention to impress a new customer. Instead, they displayed their boredom, gazing out the window, chatting with each other and making personal phone calls before getting down to the business of getting me dinner.

The end result: food that met my free- falling expectations. An appetizer of tempura shrimp and vegetables ($5.99) contained limp shrimp, a few onion rings, a thick slice of aged yam and hunks of tough, dry broccoli, whose yellow flowerets held a surprise under their greasy tempura crust — gobs of raw batter oozing between the flower buds. I'd order this again — for Timothy McVeigh's last meal.

A small Thai yum salad ($5.95) of greens, chunks of cucumber, shredded carrots and onions, topped with thin slices of beef, a spicy, salty dressing and a sprinkle of lime juice, was at least edible, though again, there was a noted lack of freshness. The sushi I'd hoped would be the main event proved to be exceedingly salty. I've tasted a sea full of flavors in all sorts of sushi, and savored the salty taste of ingredients from soy sauce to bonito flakes, but this was different — as if it had a good going over with a salt shaker. Since salt can disguise decay, its appearance made me uneasy. A Mexican roll ($9.90) with tempura shrimp, avocado and spicy chili sauce, lacked moistness and the contrast of textures that would have made it yummy. An order of eel, two thumb-size blocks of sushi rice, topped with grilled eel and unagi sauce ($4.50) was bad enough to put me off my feed altogether, announcing the advanced age of its ingredients with a ghastly aroma and flavor.

Don't let my bad experience put you off sushi. It can be a great flavor adventure. To explore in good company, join the club: The Tampa Bay Sushi Society, that is, whose 500 members meet for monthly lunches and dinners at sushi bars on both sides of the Bay. Whether you're new to sushi and looking for friendly guidance, or an experienced octopus eater whose mate doesn't like going out for "bait," I urge you to join this great group of people in exploring Tampa Bay's diverse sushi bars. For information, call Andrew Moos at 813-835-8884.

WINE TIME: Don't forget — this Saturday, May 12, is the Abilities Wine Tasting and Auction at Tropicana Field. I put the Bonnie Boots "Drool Of Approval" on this mouthwatering mixture of fine food and fabulous wines served up by some of the best restaurants and wine merchants in Tampa Bay. Sample 300 premium wines from around the world, and graze on food from 40 top-rated restaurants like Mise En Place and Salt Rock Grill. Tickets are only $50 ($60 at the door) or upgrade to the V.I.P. pre-tasting for $125 and sample exclusive wines from specialty merchants paired with food from grand restaurants like Redwoods, O'Gradney's Bistro, Grand Finale, Blue Gardenia and more. Tickets for the V.I.P. tasting, from 6 to 7 p.m., also include the grand tasting from 7 to 9:30 p.m. While grazing, bid on a huge silent auction featuring a Jim's Harley-Davidson, wonderful vacation packages, and fine wines. Remember, this is a party with purpose- every dollar raised helps Abilities train disabled adults to return to full employment. Order tickets now at 727-538-7370, Ext. 345.

The Abilities Wine Tasting & Auction is at Tropicana Field,1 Stadium Drive (at 16th Street) in St. Petersburg on Saturday, May 12. VIP tasting 6-7 p.m.; grand tasting 7-9:30 p.m. Free parking. For tickets, call 727-538-7370, ext. 345.

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