Sunday, May 3, 2009

Japanese Market a/k/a Sushi Deli - North Bay Village

sushi deli menuWhile most people claim that Matsuri is the best place for sushi in Miami, my personal favorite is a tiny little counter inside a Japanese market along the 79th Street Causeway - Sushi Deli (a/k/a Japanese Market).

The market is small but well-stocked, with several choices of high-quality rice, noodles, sauces, spices, pickles, and the like, a selection of frozen fish and seafood items (including "super-frozen" tuna and hamachi), meats like kurobuta pork and thinly sliced beef for shabu shabu, a good selection of sakes, and occasionally, fresh Japanese vegetables. They also regularly stock "Pocky", a Japanese chocolate-covered-pretzel-stick snack (we are particularly fond of the "Men's Pocky" bitter chocolate flavor), among several Japanese snacks and sweets.

Occupying one corner of the market is a small sushi bar with only four seats in front of it, as well as a couple more counters and tables to the side. The bar is almost always staffed by Chef Kushi and his daughter (?)(amazing how rare it still is to see a woman behind a sushi bar). The menu lists a selection of nigiri priced from $1 - $2.50 a piece (with more exotic items subject to market prices), as well as an assortment of various maki, and a few simple cooked dishes. The selection of rolls makes some concessions to Americanized tastes - you will find a California roll, a "rainbow roll," and at least one eel/mango/cream cheese concoction, but the real joy of Sushi Deli is in the more traditional items.

In particular, one of my favorites is the battera roll. The battera is an example of a very old-school style of sushi-making from Osaka which originated hundreds of years ago, in which vinegar-cured fish (often an oily fish like a mackerel) is pressed with rice which is shaped in a wooden box. At Sushi Deli, the rice (usually still a little warm, lightly vinegared, and moist enough to stick together without being gooey or clumpy) is topped with shiny, silver-skinned saba (mackerel), itself also vinegar-cured, along with a sheet of translucent marinated seaweed, and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds, all pressed into the box, removed and then cut into rectangles. It's beautiful to look at and, for someone like me who likes the stronger flavors of hikari-mono (the Japanese term for all silver-skinned fish like mackerel, sardine, etc.), delicious and satisfying.

Though not nearly so traditional, and even though I'm not usually big on maki, I also like the ceviche roll, which is light and inflected with citrus and cilantro, and the Marie Roll, filled with diced tuna with spicy (Sriracha?) sauce, a bit of toasted sesame oil, little bits of toasted garlic, and a sliver of shiso leaf. Little Miss F is also a big fan of the crunchy shrimp roll, a combination of a crispy fried shrimp, avocado, and mango, bound with a little spicy mayo and given a little sprinkle of masago for a little pop. Meanwhile, Frod Jr.'s regular order is the teriyaki salmon, served over steamed rice with some salad and edamame (a bargain lunch for $4.95 or $7.95 for double fish), which he sometimes supplements with some unagi nigiri.

Some of the best things I've eaten at Sushi Deli have come when I simply ask Chef Kushi to make what nigiri he thinks is best that day. Perhaps at this point some disclaimers are in order. If you are serious about sushi, one of the first lessons you learn is to befriend your itamae (the sushi chef). If you show that you are interested - by being a regular customer,[1] by politely asking questions, by being willing to try new items, you may open yourself up to a very different dining experience.[2] Not to wax too philosophical, but when done well and conscientiously, there is an intimacy to a sushi meal that is hard to find in just about any other restaurant experience. The person who is making your food is right there before you, you watch as it's prepared, the chef handles it with their own hands, and the chef can see your reaction as you eat it.

I have been going to Sushi Deli a couple times a month on average for years now. I literally could not even begin to count the times I've visited. And at a certain point, when I would ask Chef Kushi what's good today, he would actually tell me, and show me. I've had ama ebi, the shrimp served raw and deliciously sweet, the head separately fried and the whole thing edible; beautiful uni (sea urchin roe), sometimes a couple different varieties (sourced from the U.S. and Japan) to compare; tai (Japanese snapper), sometimes lightly cured between sheets of kombu; fat raw sea scallops; toro (fatty tuna), always served in a generous slab, most recently enlivened with a fresh grating of Himalayan salt right before serving; aji (horse mackerel), ankimo (monkfish liver), and another favorite I was introduced to here, sayori (needlefish or halfbeak), a beautiful little fish with delicate translucent white flesh and shiny silver skin.

Often these items will come with some small flourish that highlights and enhances the flavor of the fish - a bit of grated fresh ginger and its juice, a quick squeeze of lime or sudachi, a dab of ume (pickled plum) paste or some special yuzu miso, a sprinkling of togarashi. A few months ago around January, I was served another item I'd never experienced before, kazunoko, or herring roe, a beautiful golden leaf of tiny eggs clumped together, which looked almost like a segment of a grapefruit and had a light flavor and fascinating, slightly bouncy texture. It was only after coming home and doing some Googling that I learned that this is a traditional (and expensive) Japanese new year dish. I felt honored to have the chance to share in such a tradition.

Some of these things you will not find on any menu. And - though I don't want to sound elitist about it - the reality is that if you're a first time visitor to the place, you may not find them at all, even for asking. Chef Kushi is the furthest thing from a "sushi bully" you could ever imagine - he is humble, polite, friendly and welcoming - but sometimes there are perks to being a regular. On occasion, the best things will be saved for the best customers. This is one of the reasons I've hesitated to write about Sushi Deli even though I eat there nearly every week, though you'll still have an excellent meal there even if you have absolutely no interest in some of the more exotic items that may be available. I've thought about it even more after reading this proposed "Food Blog Code of Ethics", which certainly has some good ideas. But I think in some ways this is the type of experience that can not be captured through a traditional restaurant review. The purpose of a traditional review is to describe the experience that any diner walking off the street will experience. Sometimes you have to "work" to really get to know a place, before it will reveal all of its charms.

I saw the flipside of this phenomenon when I recently visited Matsuri, which I get to only rarely. I sat at the bar, and when the itamae had a moment of down-time I asked what was especially good today. The response was a perfunctory and dismissive "Everything." Would I be treated differently if I was there every couple weeks? It's distinctly possible. But given how happy I am after every visit to Sushi Deli, it's unlikely I'll ever find out.

Japanese Market a/k/a Sushi Deli
1412 79th Street Causeway
North Bay Village, FL 33141
Sushi Deli hours:
11:30am - 6:30pm Wed-Sat
12:00pm - 5:30pm Sun[3]

Japanese Market on Urbanspoon

[1] In his book "Turning the Tables: The Insider's Guide to Eating Out," eGullet founder Steven Shaw (a/k/a "Fat Guy") suggests a two-visit routine to make any itamae your "personal sushi chef." While it's a great book, I'm dubious as to the universal effectiveness of this particular bit of advice.

[2] Of course, at many places you'll just be banging your head against the wall - it just doesn't get any better than their commodity-quality generic fish.

[3] Do note that Japanese Market closes early. As a result of these hours, it has been almost exclusively a weekend lunch place for me.


  1. wow, sounds great. I've tried to go twice and had the misfortune of missing him. once he was on a trip to Japan. It's a spot we always forget to try, but we'll have to try again.

  2. Great review! I lived in NBV for several years, and Chef was always extremely nice, plus he recognized me every time we came in. For my money, this is the best sushi in Miami.

  3. I tried the Marie Roll this past weekend and I am pretty sure the spicy in the Marie Roll is in fact a Kimchee sauce, not sriracha.