Restaurant review: Tastes that sing at Souzou

Souzou in St. Pete serves stellar sushi, Asian fusion and cocktails with a spin.

click to enlarge The dazzling interior of Souzou, layered with multiple textures. - Lisa Mauriello
Lisa Mauriello
The dazzling interior of Souzou, layered with multiple textures.


Sushi always has me humming show tunes. 

As unlikely as it sounds, the opening of Japan to establish trade is the focus of a Broadway musical, Pacific Overtures. It’s the tale of Commodore Perry’s 1853 incursion of American warships in an unwelcome move to open the island nation closed to foreigners for centuries. If not for the Convention of Kanagawa, we might not be reveling in the gastronomic joys of Souzou’s cuisine.

So even as I cross the ample parking lot, I find myself thrumming Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant score. I’m quickly distracted by the new St. Petersburg restaurant’s stunning décor, though. (So much so that I gave the interior a Best of the Bay nod). As I encounter artist Scott Fisher’s striking, life-size monochrome canvases of samurai warriors that anchor the design, Sondheim’s clever lyrics return to bounce around my brain.

“If the tea the Shogun drank will
Serve to keep the Shogun tranquil…”

However, it’s alcohol, not tea, that restaurants of every stripe are embracing in a trend toward craft cocktails. Souzou is no exception, offering a list of signature drinks with a twist.

click to enlarge Salmon, snow crab and eel are among the restaurant's nigiri offerings. - Lisa Mauriello
Lisa Mauriello
Salmon, snow crab and eel are among the restaurant's nigiri offerings.

My table is buzzing with excitement at the results. The Taiwan is a variation on the classic Manhattan, adding the surprise of Chinese five spice to Bulleit bourbon and sweet vermouth, with a huge slow-to-melt sphere of ice and a couple of delicious dark cherries. Superb. The Elderflower tops Ketel One Vodka and St. Germain liqueur with the unforeseen addition of Mio Sparkling Sake, as well as a touch of mint and fresh rosemary sprig. Delightful. Meanwhile, the “Angry” Asian is the restaurant’s version of a margarita. Don Julio reposado tequila, cointreau, lime juice, agave nectar and a smoked salt rim has a fan of this stalwart smiling from ear to ear. All the cocktails rock.

Sushi chef Viet Vo’s fare is first-rate, too. The hamachi (yellowtail) and unagi (eel) nigiri are luscious, balanced with masterful rice and a touch of wasabi. The swirl of zuwaigani (snow crab) is bound together in a creamy mass peeking out of a seaweed wrap, which is an unexpected surprise. We also decide to share two of the eight-piece sushi rolls. One uramaki-style with the rice outside is filled with crunchy tempura snapper, scallion and dark kabayaki (soy and eel) sauce.

The Category 5 Roll is indeed a high-speed hurricane of flavor. Spicy tuna, cream cheese and asparagus are rolled in avocado-wrapped rice. The individual pieces are placed on edge in a circle, striped with lines of kabayaki sauce and chili aioli, then dusted with black and white sesame seeds. The center is filled with a large shredded mound of “dynamite mix” seafood and finished with finely diced scallions. The dish resembles a psychedelic spider on a plate.
Executive chef Ty Weaver offers a selection of hot and cold dishes, a variety of which highlight rice and noodles. The goal is to “skillfully interpret Asian-influenced fare for a modern crowd” on plates designed to share.

Tuna tataki layers lightly seared deep red tuna on thin slices of Japanese cucumber. It’s accompanied by finely shredded and pickled daikon radish in a tart ginger-lime dressing with acidity to brighten the luscious fish.

Tsukune meatballs are a big hit. The long rectangular plate is covered with sweet hoisin sauce and fresh Asian slaw. It’s topped with a line of six billiard ball-like orbs made from a luscious combination of pork and beef. The slaw brings crunch and acidity, countering the sweet hoisin, but both marry wonderfully with the umami-filled meatballs. My table is pulsing with excitement.

click to enlarge The grilled Shoyu Flank Steak features veggies, jasmine rice and a fried egg. - Lisa Mauriello
Lisa Mauriello
The grilled Shoyu Flank Steak features veggies, jasmine rice and a fried egg.

They’re almost as excited by the Korean bulgogi with soft pork belly and crispy-tart kimchi in a barbecue sauce filling four puffy white steamed buns. One comrade is new to this Asian-style taco and happily wolfs it down despite the messiness that’s part of the allure.

The one disappointing main course is the Shoyu Flank Steak. The carrots, scallions and asparagus are wonderfully fresh and al dente. However, despite being perfectly grilled, the beef with jasmine rice is underseasoned and bland. Even the presence of a fried egg with its dripping yolk can’t rescue this one.

There’s not a printed dessert menu, but on our visit there are three sweet offerings. First, there’s traditional mochi, pounded glutinous rice balls filled with ice cream. A serving is six balls from a choice of four flavors: vanilla, strawberry, green tea and mango. These are the only sweets not made in-house. They’re fine, but I’d skip them for the wonderful green tea ice cream. A bowl of three creamy scoops topped with fresh whipped cream is surprisingly good, especially with a generous drizzle from the tiny pitcher of anise-tinged clover honey kicking the dish up a notch.

Last is ginger-coconut crème brûlée showcased as a pair of small square porcelain ramekins. While a friend is blown away by the ginger’s bold flavor, I find this batch of custard underdone and am disappointed that the coconut seems absent. If it’s meant to feature two flavors, which sounds delightful, it needs to be rebalanced.

Nevertheless, we’ve got Commodore Perry to thank.

Jon Palmer Claridge dines anonymously when reviewing. Check out the explanation of his rating system.

About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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