Japanese Whispers

Give in to the subtle charm of Bonsai

Him: What's this place you want to go to?

Her: Bonsai Japanese Restaurant.

Him: I don't have to eat seaweed, do I?

Her: I just won't tell you when you are.

Him: Yech.

Her: I'm paying.

Him: OK.

Are all guys gutter whores for a woman who picks up the check?Now, if I can just convince him that the white stuff in the soup is marshmallow instead of tofu ...

Ultimately, the restaurant was a soft sell. A small, family-owned place set in the Palm Connection Shopping Center near the University of South Florida, it was a quiet, no-hassle eatery with pretty good sushi and decent teriyaki. And such civilized service and décor.

It was positively serene the night we were there. A few tables were occupied by diners speaking Japanese, always a good sign because it means you're probably going to get something approximating what you might find in Japan. Sometimes, when I walk into an Asian restaurant and find a whole roomful of white, middle-class Americans speaking English, I wonder how authentic it can be.

We liked the understated dining room — so spare, so unobtrusive, carefully adorned with restrained artwork and soothing colors. A tinkle of water from somewhere. Very soft music. Such a kind, careful server — we found out later she was the owner, Jung Patton, who along with her husband, Roni, has operated the restaurant since September 2001. She moved so soundlessly, with such a benign economy, we barely noticed her coming and going.

We weren't very hungry. At 4 p.m., my piggish dining companion had snacked on a gigantic platterful of Middle Eastern chicken shish kebab; I was stuffed from a big charity lunch and just wanted something hot. We found Bonsai's light food to be the perfect solution.

We started with miso soup ($1.50), so delicate in taste and smell, its beige broth cloudy with miso (fermented soybean paste) and flavored with seaweed, scallion and squares of tofu. Served in a traditional cup with an aesthetically pleasing, aerodynamic-looking spoon, it was a delight. My hot green tea ($1) arrived steamy and fragrant, with matching cup and teapot. The weather was cold, and it felt good to wrap my fingers around the cup and absorb its warmth.

We finished the soup about the time the salad arrived. The greens looked a bit yellow, as if they came from a part of the lettuce that should have been discarded, but the salad was redeemed somewhat by its shredded carrot topping and a lively ginger dressing.

I could see the cook was standing over a huge, hot cauldron. I couldn't see what she was doing, but when a server brought our platter of steamed fresh oysters ($6.95), still moist from the pot, I realized she had been making them while I watched.

They were two big, hearty specimens, smoking hot, still fresh and resplendent in their craggy shells.

The oysters were so fresh, they gave off a sea scent, but they still required some discipline on my part to eat; I don't find oysters something I yearn for, but when they appear before me so royally, shedding that fabulous aroma, I always enjoy them.

Our second appetizer was a dish called tiger eyes ($7.95), salmon with asparagus and crabmeat, wrapped with seaweed and squid and cut, so when it was plated, the small circles took on a striped appearance. We liked their complex taste, the yin and yang of the veggies and the fish.

I ordered as an entree the beef teriyaki combination platter ($14.95). It includes soup and salad, and a bento box with compartments that hold various items. One compartment held an 8-ounce, sliced sirloin steak that glistened earthy brown in its teriyaki sauce, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Though the meat could have been more tender, it was certainly acceptable. Other compartments featured an anarchic pile of bean sprouts; two excellent crispy, tiny shrimp dumplings called ebi shu mai; a pile of white rice; and sheets of tuna, salmon and grouper sashimi wrapped finger-like around white rice.

Arriving on a separate plate but included in the price of my combination platter was a Key West roll, which my companion ate. Its conch meat came wrapped with seaweed and rice, and flavored with spicy wasabi. It looked gorgeous on the plate, topped with neon orange and green roe. Despite his professed reservations about seaweed, my pal ate a number of them, and I took the rest home to nosh. For dessert, we ordered tempura ice cream ($5.95), which we should have avoided. It was a hard ball of ice cream fried in tempura batter; the crust is supposed to be crispy and firm, but this one was mushy. Since Japanese cuisine does not typically encompass sweet, Western-style desserts, it seemed out of place.

Warm and tingly from the tea, the wasabi and the steamy oysters, we left satiated but not uncomfortable. If less-is-more has a place in your dining philosophy, I certainly can recommend Bonsai Japanese Restaurant.

Sara Kennedy dines anonymously, and the Weekly Planet pays for her meals. She can be reached at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.