Sushi purists may want to divert their eyes; something wickedly creative this way comes.
Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: Izziban, a new restaurant in South Orlando, serves some of the best sushi in town. The selections meet all the required standards for freshness and expert slicing and rolling. And presentation is artistically delicious.
And, dear purists, you will find your favorites, too. There are the usual California rolls, tuna rolls, spider rolls with soft shell crab and asparagus rolls. And of course you can also have basic nigirizushi with perfect pads of vinegared rice topped with buttery soft slabs of raw fish, sliced to accentuate tenderness and served at room temperature. Or you may choose to forgo the rice and have the fish sashimi style.
But then you’ll also find such things as a banana roll (deep-fried banana, cucumber and avocado); strawberry roll (cucumber, avocado, asparagus and strawberry); and even sushi selections with chicken and beef.
But even those are the heights of this menu, which was designed by Jae Lee, previously of Sushin in Longwood, and skillfully executed by Lee and John Nguyen. For something really special try the restaurant’s namesake Izziban roll ($11). It has tempura shrimp and asparagus with cream cheese rolled in rice. The cream cheese alone would be enough to give sushi purists the shudders. But then Lee topped the sliced sushi coins with a sauce of sorts comprised of mayonnaise, fish eggs, crab and cheese, baked so the cheese was melted and the sauce hot. Unusual, and amazingly delicious.
Butterfly roll ($8) had tempura crab with avocado and cream cheese topped with a lighter sauce and baked.
Beef roll ($9) was a simple nonseafood item that had medium-rare meat with asparagus and mushrooms rolled in rice. The coins were smaller than most of the other sushi selections but I loved the big beef flavor.
Izziban Sushi is at the corner of Sand Lake Road and Orange Blossom Trail, so how could I not order both the OBT roll ($13) and the Sand Lake roll ($11) together? The OBT had as its base a California roll. But that basic roll was deep-fried and topped with another cheesy white sauce that had crab, salmon and scallops.
Sand Lake was a little less exotic, a spicy tuna roll, with plenty of spice, topped with bite-size slices of salmon.
Unfortunately the restaurant’s skills do not translate to the kitchen foods. Seafood tempura ($18) was a bit too greasy, and featured too many vegetables instead of seafood.
Nabayaki udon ($15) was a cast iron cauldron of scalding broth with big, fat flour noodles. There was a tempura shrimp floating nearby, its jacket disintegrating from it, bits of chicken meat, rendered chewy, and an egg that was well beyond poached.
There are 77 appetizer selections on the menu, more than anyone really needs. My favorite was the wasabi shumai ($6.50), steamed pork dumplings with more than a little bit of wasabi mixed in. My first bite had me reaching for the Kirin to cool my tongue.
Kalbi ($9), short ribs marinated in soy, were hard and chewy, but then I haven’t had any that weren’t.
But the appetizer called scallop butter ($8) – really scallops in butter – was wonderful and rich. The scallops were sautéed with button mushrooms and served swimming in the butter.
Guests are offered a complementary appetizer of tempura sweet potato or other vegetable. A nice gesture, although on one occasion the tempura seemed to have been done some time before.
Guests are also offered a hot towel after seating to cleanse the hands. Service was pleasant and helpful. Everyone I had contact with smiled and made me feel welcome.
Izziban occupies the space that had been home to Saucy Bella, a half-service Italian restaurant that folded last year. Much of Saucy Bella’s basic décor is intact; the new owners simply added on. The floors are rough-surfaced, painted concrete. There are the ubiquitous large screen televisions hanging from the high ceilings. Tabletops are stainless steel stained, and colorful glass pendant lamps hang over the booths.
Sake bottles line the wall, an indication of the extensive sake list. Alas, only one sake is available by the glass; all others must be ordered by the bottle.
The atmosphere, as with so many of the newer sushi bars, is youthful and contemporary. The music is a bit louder than it needs to be, but it is fun to hear American standards sung in Japanese.
Sushi is an acquired taste. I’m always amused by people who are otherwise adventurous eaters who scrunch up their noses when sushi is suggested. I’m not sure if those people would be doubly disgusted by the sushi at Izziban or thoroughly delighted. Count me as the latter.
Izziban Sushi is at 1700 W. Sand Lake Road (just west of Orange Avenue), Orlando. It is open for lunch and dinner daily. Here's a link to the Web site. The phone number is 407-850-5088.