There’s something fishy going on in Ocala, and it’s making our tummies rumble and our fingers fumble as we reach with chopsticks for the delicious and delectable prize. Chefs have been on a roll, and Ocalans have fallen hook, line and sinker… for sushi.
Once upon a time, before sushi went mainstream, this raw fish dish was either avoided at all costs or eaten only by pretentious foodies. Now, sushi has evolved with countless varieties, and many restaurants have dubbed their rolls flashy and sassy names, like “Godzilla” and “Red Dragon.” And chefs make up plates so beautifully that it’s a must to admire their handiwork. But it won’t be long before you take a stab with your chopsticks and take the first bite.
We’ve found the finest venues in town—plus one in The Villages worth a little extra mileage—so you don’t have to go fishing without a paddle. Don’t let hibachi performances deter you from the savory—and sometimes spicy—allure of a sushi roll. It’s a true art form you’ll want to sink your teeth into.
The Racy Rolls
Tony Sushi Japanese Steakhouse
3405 Southwest College Rd., Ocala
Walking into Tony’s, you’ll be welcomed into a casual eatery with friendly servers and eclectic music. Head chef and owner Tony Li trained in Miami prior to opening the eatery in spring 2000. The millennium was the dawn of a new era, an era when sushi was becoming en vogue on the restaurant scene.
“I think it was just becoming popular,” says Jade Chun, Tony’s restaurant manager. “Tony came to Ocala and loved the nice cozy town. He wanted to bring his ideas and creations to a place where people would enjoy them.”
Hundreds of rolls have been served at Tony’s, and the creative process involves the staff taste-testing the new sushi and giving their opinions on which fish are the perfect catch. But the head chef always gets the last word.
“Tony has the final say on the end result,” Jade says.
Two specialty rolls that have Ocalans talking are the Hot ‘N Sexy roll and the G roll. The Hot ‘N Sexy is a yellowtail, crab and cucumber roll sprinkled with tempura (fried batter) flakes and red and black tobiko (caviar) in a spicy crab and sesame sauce. The G roll is filled with cream cheese, shrimp tempura and spicy crab, with a drizzle of honey miso and sesame sauce. Its toppings are salmon, avocado and mango.
“We have so many things off the menu,” Jade says. “Our creations are constantly evolving.”
For people who still turn their nose at the thought of raw fish, Jade recommends the Jena roll, a snapper, crab and avocado roll that is lightly battered and fried.
“Keep in mind that anything that the guest does not want or wants to add into the roll can be made special,” Jade says. “There is no limit to what we can create!”
The Rolls With A Little Zen
Yamato Japanese Steak House
7414 SW College Rd., Ocala
Instead of making Starbucks your first pit stop off of SR 200 before heading into town, why not stop for a bite at Yamato? One of four locations, Ocala’s Yamato opened in 2008. Austin McCafferty has worked as a chef at Yamato for the past three years, rolling out crowd favorites like the Ocalaholic.
“In terms of popularity,” Austin says, “the Ocalaholic roll wins hands down. It’s spicy crab salad with cream cheese, avocado and green onions on the inside, topped with seared ahi tuna and wasabi infused fish roe.”
Austin compares sushi-making to a bartender mixing new drinks. He has a minimalist approach to sushi, as mirrored by the rolls at Yamato.
“For appearance, I love the Eagle roll,” Austin says. “Instead of rice and seaweed we use a cucumber cut into a flat sheet then place salmon, crab, avocado, carrot, cream cheese, fish roe and oshinko (Japanese pickled radish). The roll is cut then covered in ponzu sauce.”
And what is sushi without its ginger and wasabi sidekicks? But why the Betty and Veronica duo?
“Ginger is a palate cleanser, much like mint in western culture, used between rolls. Wasabi was used to mask the strong ammonia flavor in the first type of sushi, which were much fishier,” Austin says.
And is it unforgivable to eat sushi sans chopsticks?
“Actually, sushi was designed to be eaten with your fingers,” Austin says. “Forks are not as OK, but better using a fork than failing with chopsticks.”
Did we just hear a collective sigh from the chopstick-challenged? Yep, us too.
The Glamour Rolls
Sushi Bistro of Ocala
18 SE Broadway St., Ocala
Indecisive about where to lunch after window-shopping on the square? Maybe you’re in the mood for something umami (that’s “pleasant savory taste” in Japanese). Sushi Bistro is the destination when you’re looking for something to break your buffalo wing or burger routine. You can eat al fresco and people watch (or because it works both ways, be watched by people as you eat your gorgeous sushi), or escape from the heat by dining inside the chic and stylish eatery.
Originally from Miami, Silvia Gonzalez and her son-in-law, a sushi chef, opened the bistro in 2009 because they noticed there weren’t many sushi-serving places in Ocala.
“We wanted to open a sushi restaurant with our own style,” Silvia says.
Style is just one word to describe the ornate sushi at Sushi Bistro. The rolls are served with floral aesthetics and bursts of color. Guests are also free to release their inner da Vinci when servers take their orders.
“Our sushi rolls are created not just from the minds of our sushi chef. We let our customers go wild with their own creations. An appetite and a creative imagination will bring you closer to your perfect sushi roll,” Silvia says.
But it’d be remiss to pass up the bistro’s creations. The Fried Green Crazy Tomato roll, for instance, is a unique combination of Japanese and American South. Filled with cream cheese, scallions and cooked shrimp and topped with fried green tomatoes, the Crazy Tomato has a distinctive taste all its own.
A popular roll is the Alexander, named after Silvia’s grandson, who was born weighing 1 pound 1 ounce.
“My son-in-law, Nestor, invented the roll in his son’s name,” Silvia says. “He is our miracle baby.”
The roll contains cream cheese, crab and shrimp tempura and is topped with more tempura, avocado, eel sauce and spicy mayo. Of all the rolls on Sushi Bistro’s menu, the Alexander is Silvia’s personal favorite.
The O Wise Elder Rolls
Kotobuki Japanese Steakhouse Restaurant
2463 SW 27th Ave., Ocala
You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into the land of the rising sun when you enter Kotobuki. With curtained booths, hibachi chefs firing up the skillet and traditional Japanese low tables, the restaurant gives you such an authentic feel you may have to pinch yourself from culture shock.
The oldest establishment on our sushi must-list, Kotobuki opened its doors in 1986. Its colorful rolls are matched with monikers reminiscent of diners naming their sandwiches after celebrities. On Kotobuki’s regular menu are the Japanese Bagel roll, so named for its inclusion of smoked salmon and cream cheese; the Ricky Delite roll, filled with crab and cooked scallops; and the Awesome roll, stuffed with tuna, spicy crab and avocado, with cream cheese and fried salmon on top.
But co-owner Susan Ishii shines the spotlight on the Ocala Rock ‘N Roll. The Ocala Rock ‘N Roll is deep fried with crab, smoked salmon, spicy squid and asparagus. It’s a crazy combination of flavors that makes for one tasty dish.
“It looks pretty, too,” Susan says.
Another roll you won’t want to pass up is the Louisiana Spicy Cajun. The sushi has spicy tuna, spicy blue crab, spicy mayo and avocado on the inside. Rainbow hues of orange, dark green and gold-yellow roe decorate the Louisiana, making the sushi extremely attractive to look at—and irresistible to eat. But just how hot is the Louisiana Spicy Cajun roll?
“It’s not really, really spicy,” Susan says, “but spicy enough.”
The Rolls Of Lady Lake
The Villages, 700 N U.S. Hwy 441, Lady Lake
Our one sushi eatery outside Ocala may be located in Lady Lake, but their most popular roll is no Miss Priss. The Sexy Girl has shrimp tempura rolled inside, along with spicy tuna and lobster salad. It’s garnished with tempura and lavish black-red roe, which gives the sushi a vampy touch.
Bamboo Bistro has a semi-formal ambience, where guests can enjoy beer and wine with a fusion of Asian dishes, including egg foo young and pad thai. Also on the menu is a selection of sushi special entrées, which are served with miso soup. Guests can choose the Love Boat, which is an assortment of sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish), shrimp tempura rolls and Alaska rolls, or the Boat of Four Seasons, which includes sashimi, rainbow rolls, tsunami rolls, spicy tuna rolls and California rolls. On the zany side, there’s also the Spicy Tuna Pizza, a sushi entrée with spicy tuna, spicy mayo and tempura on a pan-fried pita.
If you’re a first-time visitor, you may want to try The Villages roll. The sushi is stuffed with tempura white fish, shrimp, cream cheese and avocado and wrapped in soybean paper.
For the perfect commencement after eating your Villages roll in The Villages, why not order the banana tempura ice cream? As the great sushi masters always say, “You can never have enough tempura.” OK, they never say that, but we’d like to pretend they do.
The Sushi Starlet
Want to make sushi but afraid it’s too complicated? Namiko “Nami” Chen is your guru for quick and easy Japanese recipes with instructional—and beautiful—photos on her blog Just One Cookbook. Nami, who started blogging in 2011, was born in Yokohama, Japan, and moved to California at age 20. Just One Cookbook includes helpful how tos as well as a list of substitutes for hard to find Japanese ingredients. Nami shares with us her recipes, wisdom and sushi etiquette, because there isn’t necessarily a wrong way to eat sushi, but there is a right way.
Is Japanese sushi different from American sushi?
When we say “sushi,” the Japanese consider it as “nigiri” sushi. A lot of people in the United States like going to eat “sushi,” but they mean all kinds of sushi rolls. We have sushi rolls in Japan, but they are more like sides or an additional order. Creative rolls like California rolls or spider rolls aren’t actually served in an authentic sushi restaurant.
As a Californian, what do you think of the California rolls you find grocery stores?
I like California rolls. I actually tried my first one at a restaurant in California! The crab, avocado, cucumber and Japanese mayonnaise go so well together, and it’s very light, too. I sometimes buy California rolls from a nearby Japanese grocery store for a quick lunch.
Where do you get ingredients and what are the best websites to order from?*
Living in the Bay Area, I’m very lucky to live close to several Japanese grocery stores. They don’t have a wide range of fresh fish like we get in Japan, and some selections are limited; however, they do carry a majority of items that we need for our daily cooking. Big Japanese grocers like Mitsuwa (mitsuwa.com) and Marukai (marukai.com) have online shopping sites and can ship within the United States.
What are some sushi tips a novice chef should know?
The key to a delicious sushi experience lies in its ingredients. Sure, practicing your sushi skills may help the look of your sushi, but without fresh ingredients, it’s difficult to enjoy the real beauty of sushi. For authentic sushi, the rice should be Japanese rice and the fish should be sushi grade.
*You can also buy ingredients, such as sashimi and nori sheets, at Publix, Earth Origins and Gainesville’s Oriental Food & Gift Market.
Before a Japanese meal, it is proper etiquette to give thanks for your food by saying, “Itadakimasu” (“I humbly receive”; pronounced “ee-tada-key-mat-soo”), but just gratifying the chef won’t let you off the hook. Nami gives the following tips on sushi decorum, which you can practice the next time you go out for Japanese cuisine.
“There is common sushi etiquette that people follow in Japan. That’s mostly out of respect to the sushi chef who prepared your sushi,” Nami says. “Although this etiquette applies for sushi dining in Japan, following it here in the United States allows you to experience the taste of sushi differently.”
First, you can eat sushi with your hands or chopsticks; both are a correct manner.
It’s OK to eat sushi in one bite (if you can easily do so); however, it’s considered bad manners when your mouth is filled with food.
When you dip your sushi in soy sauce, rotate the sushi and only dip the fish lightly. It is best not to soak rice in soy sauce or separate the fish and rice.
If you like wasabi flavor and want to add more, you can do so by putting it on top of the fish and dipping it in soy sauce to eat.
Cucumber Wrapped Sushi
Unsure about “edible” seaweed? Try this simple sushi recipe that uses cucumber instead!
Yields 15-20 cucumber wrapped sushi
10 shiso (perilla) leaves
4 cups prepared sushi rice (vinegared rice; find recipe at justonecookbook.com) or Arborio rice
4 ounce sashimi-grade salmon
4 ounce sashimi-grade yellowtail
4 ounce sashimi-grade tuna
4 tablespoons salmon roe
Daikon radish sprouts or alfalfa sprouts, for garnish
Round cookie cutter (3/4 inch diameter recommended)
Slice cucumber with peeler to make long thin strips. Place shiso leaves on a serving platter, and put cookie cutter on top of a shiso leaf. Stuff rice into cookie cutter about half way and remove cutter gently. Roll “sushi cylinder” with one strip of cucumber slice to measure circumference of the circle. Make short slits at ends of cucumber slice with knife so you can interlock the strip around the rice. Dice tuna, and lightly marinated it with scallions, soy sauce and sesame oil. Place tuna mixture in a cucumber cup. For shrimp, place a couple pieces from the outer edges to the center in a cucumber cup to make it look like a flower. Slice the sashimi-grade fish perpendicular to the muscle (the white line you see in the fish), and place a few slices in a cucumber cup. Garnish with lemon and radish sprouts. Serve immediately.
We all know eating a convenience store California roll is a hit or miss, so spare yourself the gamble and try Nami’s recipe.
Yields 9 long rolls
26-ounce cans crab meat
½ cup Japanese mayonnaise (substitute 1 cup mayo, 2 tablespoons rice vinegar and 1 tablespoon sugar, whisked)
½ lemon, optional
9 nori (seaweed) sheets
9 cups prepared sushi rice or Arborio rice
¼ cup white sesame seeds
Ikura (salmon roe), tobiko (flying fish roe), pickled sushi ginger and/or wasabi, for garnish
Tezu (1/4 cup water and 2 tsp. vinegar)
Drain water from canned crab meat, and put it in medium bowl. Add mayonnaise, mix well and set aside. Place cucumber next to nori sheet, and cut off cucumber’s edge so length of cucumber is same width of nori sheet. Peel cucumber, leaving some skin for a stripe pattern for looks and texture. Cut cucumber into long thin strips; set aside. Peel and cut avocado into quarter-inch slices. Squeeze lemon juice on cut avocados to prevent them from turning brown. Cut 1/3 from each sheet of nori. Keep both 1/3 and 2/3 nori sheets in Ziploc bag so they won’t become stale. Wrap bamboo mat with a large piece of saran wrap. Lay one piece of nori sheet on top of the bamboo mat, shiny side down. Put a cup of sushi rice on top of nori sheet (just enough to thinly cover the nori sheet; it’s OK to have some small gaps). Dip your fingers in tezu, and start distributing the rice toward the bottom of nori sheet. Sprinkle sesame seeds and/or tobiko over the rice. Flip nori sheet with rice side down, and line it at bottom end of the bamboo mat. Lay a strip of cucumber, spread crab meat and lay avocado slices on top. Use bamboo mat to roll bottom edge of nori sheet over filling; tuck filling in firmly. Lift edge of bamboo sheet, and roll it forward while keeping gentle pressure on the bamboo sheet. Take roll out of bamboo mat, and with a very sharp knife, cut each roll in half and then cut each half into three pieces. Keep wiping the knife with a damp towel after a few slices to avoid rice buildup.
For more of Nami’s recipes and tips, visit justonecookbook.com.
Recipes and photos courtesy of Namiko Chen, justonecookbook.com