Here Todai, Back Tomorrow

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It reminded me of a roomy college cafeteria, shiny metallic, with tray lines, simple, unclothed tables and spare chairs. Maybe it was due in part to the annoying electronic music coming over the sound system, or the young, enthusiastic employees tending the buffet line.

Todai's ambience might've suggested sorry dorm food. Its fare was anything but. The eatery, which opened April 12 at International Plaza in Tampa, specializes in all-you-can-eat sushi and seafood. This is the first outpost in Florida for the small California chain, and the first anywhere along the East Coast. The nearest Todai is in Houston.

I think I can fairly say that this is no ordinary buffet. This is a monster buffet. There's a staggering array of choices and high quality, fresh-caught-this-morning fare. The eclectic mix of dishes represents an odd mishmash of international culinary traditions, from Japanese to French to American. In all, Todai is a terrific place to take a big appetite.

You'll come away full, but it won't be cheap. At lunch, the buffet is $12.95 per adult on weekdays, $14.95 on weekends and holidays; dinner costs $22.95 during the week and $23.95 on weekends and holidays. Children are half-price or less, depending upon their size, and a senior-citizen special allows a 15-to 20-percent discount through June.

Start down the long line, big plate in hand, and a form of gastronomic shock sets in: Spread out in perfectly arranged precision on ice is an amazing sushi spread, 40 different kinds. You'll see everything from hamachi (yellow tail) to unagi (eel) to shrimp, mackerel and tuna, sea urchin, and various types of seaweed. They're all artistically arranged on your plate, glistening and fresher than a sea breeze.

Once I got over my astonishment, I picked one of everything, running the sushi gamut. But then 15 more choices at the salad bar — shrimp cocktail, seaweed salad, seafood salad, even tri-colored Jell-O confounded me.

My mission became clear: I took one sample of everything there, as well.

Turn the other way, and I found another buffet bearing more than a dozen hot dishes: Let's have one each of tempura, halibut, calamari, fried rice, giant scallops, tiger shrimp, udon (Japanese noodles), fish cake soup, gyoza (dumplings), shall we? And let's not miss the round, cold bar set like a kiosk in the middle of the room — burdened with huge mounds of fresh fruit (five kinds), snow crab, half-shell scallops, steamed lobster claws.

That was before I even noticed an entirely separate dessert buffet tucked on the far side, with more dozens of items. Tiny, buttery pecan balls rolled in powered sugar. A big pile of homey chocolate chip cookies. Tiny slices of French-style pear tart. A tiny cup of mango creme, cheesecake, tiramisu, creampuffs and almond cookies.

My poor mind was reeling, and that was before we even sat down to eat. When I finally returned to the table and brandished chopsticks, then came the fun part.

The restaurant does a very good version of the traditional, Japanese miso soup — a hearty broth with big chunks of tofu and veggies, just hot enough. I slugged it down.

I loved the sushi — expertly fashioned from a world of colorful ingredients, each tiny cake an artistic creation as well as a delectable treat. Salmon, smoked and fresh, paired with pearls of vinegar- flavored white rice and nuggets of avocado. Tuna and cucumber rolls; California rolls made with shrimp, avocado, fish roe and rice. Egg sushi, a tiny slab of omelet cut carefully into a rectangle on the bottom, rice set atop and tied with a ribbon of nori, an edible seaweed. The restaurant also serves sashimi, which means "raw" in Japanese, and generally refers to seafood filets sliced fresh and served with dipping sauces.

My favorites from the salad bar were sliced, periwinkle-colored Japanese eggplant, sweetened and flavored with soy sauce and ginger; sea urchin, steamed in sake and served cold; and simple, steamed asparagus spears spritzed with a tangy sauce made from mayonnaise and squirts of fresh orange and lemon juice.

Among the best hot dishes was gyoza, dumplings stuffed with ground pork and cabbage, and seasoned with ginger, garlic, soy sauce, hot chili oil and vinegar. One dish called "seafood dynamite" sits prettily on a real seashell. It's a mix of imitation crabmeat, squid and octopus bound with an egg-based sauce and flavored with soybean paste.

We enjoyed the delicate Japanese tempura, shrimp and yams, fried fast and crisp on the outside, which keeps the bite-size pieces soft and tender inside. Also on the hot buffet was a lovely fan of green mussels, dotted with homemade tartar sauce and sprinkled with melted cheese.

Need something to wash it down? Todai also offers beer, wine and sake.

Once you rip through all that food and drink, you think you're not going to be able to do dessert at all, but we found a way. There was a well executed, but fairly elementary, French creampuff, shot with whipped cream; and a chocolatey fudge, heavy with nuts, that inspired some serious overeating. And that was even before I found a sophisticated, subtle mango creme, so light it disappeared on your tongue like fog melts with dawn's light.

It's interesting how people react to such an overwhelming set of choices (no doggy bagging or takeout is available, so you have to eat it all while you're there). One couple near us passed up everything except the lobster claws. They had piled their plates with lobster, and spent the better part of an hour using shiny metal implements to crack the thick shells, carefully remove the meat and dip it in plastic cups of melted butter. They ended up with a prodigious mound of discarded shell.

Others showed remarkable restraint, considering the temptations. One lady had gathered a modest, half-plate of several cold and hot veggie dishes. She talked to her friends, ate slowly, and got up from the table without the aid of the waiter, unlike some of us who overindulged.

Corporate chef and kitchen manager Shigeo Yamane said that much of the seafood and shellfish he uses at the restaurant comes from Miami, but the corporate parent in California supplies some of the hundreds of ingredients as well.

Apparently quite a few of the new restaurant's customers were already salivating at the thought of Todai: "The majority of our customers have been waiting for us to come," explained manager Karen Uynh. "Some of them get gift certificates from family out West, and have been waiting to use them. They say, "What took you so long to get here?'"

Indeed.

Reach food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.TodaiInternational Plaza

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