Thursday, May 24, 2012

Pubbelly Sushi - Miami Beach

Pubbelly Sushi

When the gang behind Pubbelly first announced that their expansion plans included a sushi bar, I'll admit I was more than a bit dubious. I like Pubbelly's mashup of Asian, gastropub, and Spanish stylings, but when it comes to sushi I'm something of a purist. I want great fresh seafood, properly cooked and seasoned rice, and really, that's it. Those goofy "specialty" rolls, stuffed with cream cheese, deep fried and drenched in cloyingly sweet "eel sauce," are just not for me. And when you start going cross-cultural with it, you quickly run the risk of turning into something truly frightful like Guy Fieri's sushi-bbq abomination, Tex Wasabi's.[1] These are dangerous waters.

But I'm also willing to engage in some culinary "suspension of disbelief," at least once. And even though it is not remotely the kind of sushi bar I'd regularly patronize, I nonetheless find myself regularly patronizing Pubbelly Sushi.

Pubbelly Sushi menu

Like its parent, Pubbelly Sushi is a tight, cozy space - brick walls, exposed ductwork, loud alt.rock, mismatched wood furnishings, and about 6-8 seats at a bar along the back. The primary feature of the menu is a list of about ten "Pubbelly Rolls," many sounding much like those overwrought concoctions I usually avoid. But the menu is also populated with about an equal number of izakaya-like "Snacks," a selection of various things packed into "New England Style Rolls," several robata grilled items, a few composed "Pubbelly Sashimi" dishes, various sides, as well as a somewhat abbreviated selection of basic sushi and sashimi (you can also, if you choose, order just about any of the Americanized canon of "California Rolls" or "Dragon Rolls" that is to your liking).

(You can see all my pictures in this Pubbelly Sushi flickr set - apologies for the wonky lighting).

shishito peppers

It surely says something that I went in a complete skeptic and came out a fan. It helped to start with the shishito peppers from the "Snacks" section. My first visit, the blistered peppers were served with an unlikely combination of raita, pine nuts, and roasted peppers. It was the kind of combination that makes no sense until you try it, at which time everything just clicks. On a subsequent visit, these were instead served with miso and pistachios, which was almost as good.

madai sashimi

I passed up the "Pubbelly Sashimi" dish that combined bigeye tuna with burrata cheese and tomato, but I did sample the Japanese madai snapper, paired with yuzu, mandarin, serrano chile and aji jus. That's a pretty long and strongly flavored list of ingredients for a pretty delicate fish. And while I can't exactly say that it brought out, rather than obscured, any hidden nuance in the madai, it was a pleasingly bold combination of flavors, more in the neighborhood of a Peruvian tiradito than anything else.

These kinds of cross-cultural tendencies manifest themselves throughout the menu, and happen to result in some of the best dishes. Another was the tostones with ceviche, a Caribbean direction this time, the crispy, salty disks of fried plantain both foil and vehicle for a small glass jar's worth of hamachi ceviche, its flavors tugged gently back toward Asia with soy, ginger and yuzu.

So far, so good. So how about those "Pubbelly Rolls"?

(continued ...)

pork belly and clam roll

May as well dive in head first: the "Porkbelly & Clams" roll is about as far afield from what I'd typically order in a sushi bar as you can get: fried clams rolled in a maki, topped with bbq pork belly and kimchee coleslaw. And ... I loved it. This is like a three-way collision between a Japanese sushi roll, a Korean bo ssam, and a New England fried clam roll. Amazingly, everyone emerges unscathed. Crispy fried clams, faintly chewy rice, rich, fatty pork, and cool slaw with a hint of spice all manage to combine into a really glorious whole. I didn't expect to like this. I order it every time I visit.

octopus ceviche roll

The "Octopus Ceviche" roll, though not quite traditional, was somewhat less busy, with the octopus marinated similarly to the hamachi ceviche, mixed with cubed avocado, flecked with cilantro, and topped with a crown of delicately pickled red onions.

bigeye tuna roll

Also on the simpler side was the "Bigeye Tuna" roll, really not so much a roll after all, rather, five planks of crispy rice ("arroz pegao") tossed with a finely minced tuna tartare laid over a blanket of a rocoto chile crema. It would seem to be a riff on a dish Puerto Rican chef Wilo Benet serves at his restaurant Pikayo. It's also quite good, so long as it isn't doused with the overpowering aroma of truffle oil, as it was on our most recent visit.

rock shrimp maki

The "Rock Shrimp" roll is a more baroque composition: the maki itself is actually filled with minced tuna tartare, then topped with sliced avocado and mango, a feisty tobanjan aioli, and finally, the namesake rock shrimp, fried in a delicate tempura shell and perched on top. "Too many notes?"[2] Maybe. But I'll be damned if it's not good, in its own over-the-top fashion.[3] I also liked the wagyu beef roll, which brought together beef tartare, avocado and Korean gochujang mustard, with a soft-cooked egg riding shotgun in a little ramekin whose gooey yolk I used as a dipping sauce.

Of course, your mileage may vary. There's not much subtlety here: these flavors will bang you over the head to announce their presence, and you're either going to like them or not. And there were some I didn't particularly like: a roll with shrimp and fluke drowned the delicate seafood in dollops of overpowering "yuzu dijonaise;" a yellowtail roll wrapped in green soy paper with snow crab and tempura flakes never really seemed to come together.

rock shrimp roll

For some variety, Pubbelly Sushi also offers about a half dozen "New England Style Rolls," which for the most part take components of other dishes and repackage them inside fluffy Martin's potato rolls. For instance, those tempura rock shrimp, which crown a maki roll and also can be had stand-alone as a "snack," either with creamy spicy sauce or "Buffalo style," can also get tossed with spicy mayo and tucked into one of these rolls.

New England style clam roll

For something even more "New England" in style, those fried clams get the same treatment, dressed with some of that coleslaw and a squeeze of lemon. The clams can stand out here more than in the maki roll, nicely fried and still possessing a briny pop. Other alternatives include a lobster roll, crab cake, spicy tuna, or a "California" with snow crab and avocado.

robata chicken

We've not done as much sampling from the robata grilled items, but what we've had has not disappointed. Juicy chunks of chicken come glazed with a smoked teriyaki sauce that's happily more savory than sweet. Pork belly arrives as thick slices glazed with tobanjan, tremblingly tender. Other options include Korean style short ribs, hamachi kama, a kimchee burger, giant squid, and a somewhat incongruous bistec encebollao.

One uncategorized menu item that could easily be missed - and should not - is Pubbelly Sushi's tuna poke. It's hard to find - it's not listed on the chalkboard menu, and I don't even see it on the website menu right now - but is worth seeking out. Cubes of glistening bigeye tuna are tossed to order with chewy, crunchy seaweeds and slivered red onions, dressed with soy sauce, sesame oil, and other good stuff, and served in a dark stone bowl. It's a dish that is simultaneously refreshing and satisfying, and I hope that its absence from the online menu doesn't mean it's being discontinued.

We've not paid much heed to desserts, although a sampler of mochi ice creams (green tea, red bean, passion fruit) was perfectly serviceable. We've paid more attention to the beverage list, which includes about a dozen sakes, all available by the bottle or in 300ml servings, and several by the glass, as well as an intriguing selection of beers. There's a particular focus on Japanese brews, including often hard-to-find Hitachino Nest Ales and Sapporo in the 22 oz. can imported from Japan, plus other international exotica like the Estrella Dam Inedit.

Hitachino Nest Ale

Sushi purists may cringe, but "fusion" isn't a dirty word any more (so say the New York Times and Bon Appetit), and Pubbelly Sushi clearly isn't afraid of it. While I may have considered myself something of a sushi purist, sometimes it's worth breaking your own rules too.

Pubbelly Sushi
1424 20th Street, Miami Beach

Pubbelly Sushi on Urbanspoon

[1] We actually, out of a combination of desperation and ignorance, ate at Tex Wasabi's when we were in Santa Rosa a few years ago, so I have in fact gazed into that abyss.

[2] "There are, in fact, only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening."

[3] Other than the tuna tartare, this is actually not a far cry from the Crunchy Shrimp maki my daughter always orders at our regular sushi haunt.

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