Singing for your sushi
Sushi comes to us from all corners these days, whether it’s an elegant Japanese restaurant, the grab-and-go grocery store deli or even a phone-order home delivery to your front door. Still, we might not expect Japan’s most famous food to come to us via Hong Kong.
But it’s the style, verve and, at times, irreverence of the sushi scene from that Chinese mega city that informs the menu at Daiwa. This casual spot, well-hidden in the back of a Marrero strip mall, mixes first-rate raw materials and a charmingly cheeky attitude to stand out from the increasingly crowded pack of local Japanese restaurants.
The Hong Kong sushi mentality accounts for Daiwa’s sashimi pizza ($9.50), an appetizer of surimi (that creamy “crab stick” salad) layered with raw tuna and salmon and curls of avocado and packed over a round, crisp, lavash-like crust. It points the way to king salmon tartare ($6.85), a loosely molded composition of chopped fish, salty bulbs of roe and Champagne sauce.
It also explains, if anything will, the plate of “spicy tuna mini rice burgers” ($8.50). Put down the chopsticks when this arrives. You’ll need to use your hands, and perhaps engage your sense of humor. Served three to an order, these “burgers” are two-bite towers of chopped, wasabi-slathered raw tuna sandwiched between dense disks of rice that have been toasted golden brown at the edges. You may feel a little silly maneuvering these things to your mouth, but they’re offbeat and undeniably tasty.
Sushi chef Ken Wong learned his chops working in his native Hong Kong. There, he explained, many sushi restaurants cater to Japanese visitors without adhering too strictly to Japanese tradition. He and his wife Kay moved to the United States a few years back and in 2011 opened Daiwa following the model he knew from home.
They started out in a small storefront that is nominally on busy Lapalco Boulevard but proves all but invisible from that main drag. Still, they built a diverse following of regulars and have been developing the restaurant as their business has grown.
Over the summer, they expanded into the adjoining retail space with a warren of private karaoke rooms. These are like small lounges furnished with sofas, coffee tables and karaoke gear with various themes worked across the décor (there’s a bubble gum-pink Hello Kitty room, for instance).
In the main dining room, the sushi bar turns out all the familiar Japanese restaurant standards, from gyoza dumplings ($4.75) to beef udon soup ($8.25) to run-of-the-mill California rolls ($4.25). But across Daiwa’s colorful (and very helpful) illustrated menu, there’s a whole section of house specials. Naturally, this is where the restaurant shines, and that goes for the cooked dishes as well as the sushi bar creations.
The baked scallops ($8.95) are actually seared and served in a piping-hot iron skillet snapping with garlic butter, like a Spanish-style tapa. The special negimaki ($6.85) has an equally dramatic presentation.
Thin-sliced strips of beef are rolled around bundles of chewy, narrow needle mushrooms and served on a hot plate in a frenzied bubbling pool of dark sauce that tastes somewhere between barbecue and hoison. The nanami chicken ($4.25) is a generous pile of strips and chunks of thigh meat, fried and coated in seven-flavor seasoning, an earthy, aromatic blend of pepper, ginger and various seeds.
Daiwa also prepares “grilled sushi,” but don’t let the name fool you. Various slices of fish are seared just enough to tighten their surface texture, while everything else remains pristinely raw.
It’s an interesting alteration to straightforward sushi, and Daiwa takes special care for beautiful arrangements, with neat sprinklings of green onion or different-colored roe, slivered citrus and, on the grilled sushi imperial plate ($9.90), a whole prawn, with legs, beady eyes and all, fried so its edible shell crackles like a chip.
With moderate prices, it’s easy to sample lots of different dishes, and sharing among a small group is probably the best way to experience Daiwa’s particular interpretation of the sushi bar. Whether you do that quietly in the dining room or to the tunes of your party’s own private karaoke soundtrack is your business.