Where Sushi Meets Adventure

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No doubt about it, Centro Ybor has changed the face of Ybor, and to my mind, for the better. There's a new sense of vibrancy and safety as families, working couples and grandparents are attracted to streets where once only the pierced and peculiar roamed. By introducing movies, games and family-friendly dining to the area, Centro Ybor has helped Ybor return to a better semblance of its glory days as a place where people of all ethnic and economic groups rubbed shoulders on the sidewalks. But for all that, Centro Ybor is still an area that makes me shake my head and wonder if the food within its family-friendly walls will ever rise above mass-marketed mediocrity.

But now, Samurai Blue has appeared, as a sassy, savvy warrior who's come to save Centro Ybor from the blahs. Samurai Blue is the Japanimation alter ego of partners Jeff Strane and executive chef Yung Kim, who give Centro Ybor a much-needed infusion of personality with their concept of kewl blue atmosphere and food that marries traditional Japanese ingredients with modern flavors. The restaurant is located on the second level of Centro Ybor, before the entrance to Muvico. Space that once served as an old theater has been gutted out, leaving bare brick walls and abounding space, with 40-foot ceilings and exposed beams. It features a 30-foot long, sinuous sushi bar, lengthy enough to accommodate four or five sushi chefs working at once, and a chic little sake bar (Japanese say sock-Ay, not sock-E). The rest of the space is filled with cherry wood tables and a bevy of booths that are simultaneously open and intimate. Add chic track lighting, a sophisticated package of artwork and a modish mix of tunes, shake and serve up a place with plenty of real personality. My two criticisms: Service is slow as a snail (but that's Ybor, isn't it?) and after-dark lighting is too low to allow visual appreciation of the food's attractive plating. Every chef knows our first taste is with the eyes.

Samurai Blue's personality extends to the menu, where Yung Kim draws on Japanese traditions and his experience in other nearby kitchens to create a cuisine aimed purposely at Ybor. There's plenty of sushi, much of it wandering far from well-traveled paths of tradition, and enticing entrees calculated to make non-sushi eaters feel comfortable and well fed. "When a group is deciding where to dine, if five want sushi, there's always one who doesn't," says Yung. "I take care of that person with dishes like our samurai steak, an 18-ounce rib eye served with wasabi-whipped potatoes, sauteed Asian vegetables and a shiitake mushroom demi-glace ($19.95, and a house best-seller) while the rest of the group enjoys sushi."

Another customer favorite is ginger-marinated salmon wrapped in rice paper and steamed, served with pineapple jasmine rice and a citrus soy sauce ($17.95). My own dinner was panko-crusted crab cakes served with a cream corn mash, sauteed Asian greens and a Dijon aioli ($15.95). The two delicate crab cakes were made almost entirely of crab, with a crispy coating of panko (Japanese breadcrumbs). Yum.

Appetizers include fresh rolls (like an egg roll, but not fried) stuffed with tiger shrimp, cellophane noodles and lettuce, and served with a spicy Thai dipping sauce ($4.95). My favorite (and available at most sushi bars) is deep-fried tofu served in a light broth with a sprinkle of bonito flakes. The tofu has a mellow sweetness, lightly contrasted by the salty flavors of dried bonito fish and seaweed ($4.50).

You'll find ample pleasures at the sushi bar, even if you're not a fish eater. Until now I've been rather a sushi purest, staying away from Americanized rolls that bear no resemblance to traditional sushi. But my research assistant announced he was not doing sushi, no matter what. So I ordered a makimono roll called the Hawaiian — no fish, no seaweed, but coconut, cream cheese, asparagus and cucumber, wrapped in rice, rolled inside an outer covering of thinly sliced avocado and mango and given a sprinkle of chopped macadamia nuts. ($9.50) "Damn!" said my research assistant. "You should try this. It's good!"

I hemmed. I hawed. "It's not really sushi." I tried. Damn! This is good! So I tried an Endless Summer ($7.95) made with small slices of banana fried in tempura batter, grilled eel (OK, I cheated and didn't tell him about the eel, which is sweet and not at all fishy) and topped with avocado slices. There were no leftovers. Yung says I missed his best-seller, a roll called Spontaneous Combustion ($9.95) with salmon, shrimp, crab, cream cheese, asparagus, avocado, scallions and smelt roe wrapped in Florida grouper and baked with a spicy mayonnaise. "There's no rice in this roll," says Yung. "When it bakes, all the flavors meld together and you get this very smooth, creamy texture. People love it." Of course, there's plenty of traditional sushi, and the nights I dined the fish was beautifully fresh. Try the soft shell crab roll, with soft shell crab fried in tempura batter, rolled with crab, avocado, cucumber, carrots, scallions, Japanese mayo and smelt roe ($8.50).

Do your taste buds a flavor and sample these dishes with sake. After all, the Japanese have been serving sake and seafood together for over 2,000 years. They must know something. If you're not already familiar with the smooth, subtle taste of sake, order a glass of Asian Pear ($6.50) whose slightly fruity flavor and aroma are easy to enjoy. My own favorite is Shirayuki ($6.50 a glass) — a very traditional, dry sake, that is, to my taste, so much better with "fishy" sushi like mackerel roe.

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