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Restaurant review: Vizen

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Vizen is the kind of restaurant discovery that thrills out-of-town food enthusiasts (and maybe some unknowing locals, too). Located in a strip mall that has seen better days, and surrounded by bars, pizzerias, chicken-wing joints and small businesses like barbers and car repair shops, Vizen doesn't rub elbows with the culinary elite.

But step inside and a transformation begins. The restaurant is comprised of two rooms. The dominant color is black; small tables are set widely apart; the back room hosts the sushi bar, where patrons can sit on futuristic-looking metal chairs with curved backs and square cutouts. On the back wall, a large blackboard lists the daily specials, and reading them indicates that this is not the typical sushi restaurant.

No, what you have here is something like haute sushi, probably the best you're going to find in the area, a complete transformation from dingy strip mall to a culinary oasis distinguished by impeccable craftsmanship.

Consider the appropriately named Wonder ($16). It consists of a disc of tuna, about a half-inch thick and three inches across, seared on the outside but almost raw within. Atop it sits a tangle of wire-thin strands of potato, deep-fried. It's an unusual combination, but a winning one, and the result is a dish of great variety, the taste and texture of the potato creating a novel contrast to the tuna, the sauces deepening the flavor.

Ceviche Vizen Style ($11) makes an attractive entrance with a cloud of foam floating on top, and then flirts with fusion styling. Shrimp, octopus and scallop marinate among the juice of Japanese citrus — the best description I could elicit from our server — and sake for a sweeter and fruitier taste than found in traditional ceviche. It was delightful and refreshing.

Among the sushi offerings, the octopus ($5.50) and Aji, or Horse Mackerel ($5) stood out, the octopus gleaming, fresh and very tender, the aji more substantial in both taste and heft. The homemade Smoked Scallops ($6.50) were a real treat because the smoke flavor was very subtle and didn't overpower them but still let us experience scallops in an entirely new way.

But the sushi reaches a pinnacle with the Uni, or Sea Urchin ($10), which benefits from a stunning presentation. The uni, sleekly coral-colored, sits in a hollow at the center of a large square plate. Off to the side a speckled quail egg — cracked open — rests in a nest of thin rice noodles. Pour the egg over the uni and dive into a creamy mixture that is sweet and slightly salty, so rich that it is almost decadent.

Vizen's rolls are well worth exploring, too. The closest one comes to the typical roll is with the Spicy Salmon, which is extremely well-executed and comes with both a chipotle and a jalapeño sauce to live up to its name. The Black Jack ($16) will surprise some with its mix of sautéed calamari, avocado, roe and the squid's black ink (hence its name). It's a roll of pronounced tastes that challenges the palate without becoming too intense. In contrast, the Fleur ($18), which also lives up to its name, comes in a very thin wrapper and combines salmon and avocado. On the plate around the roll dots of sauce allow a choice of spiciness, from smoky chipotle to the fiery habanero. Completing the presentation, a porcelain spoon sits brimming with a tomato salsa. My only regret for the evening was that I couldn't sample more of these creative and subtle dishes.

Service for the evening was attentive, with care given to time the various dishes carefully. Beer and wine choices at Vizen are fairly limited. There is sake available as well.

Vizen Japanese Cuisine
6559 Gateway Ave., Sarasota
Open 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Call 926-0830
vizen-sarasota.com


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Last modified: September 13, 2013
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