Inventive Japanese Stands tall Amidst Urban Sprawl.
In a forgettable, small strip mall nestled between forgettable, large strip malls – just far away enough from Mills 50 to see no benefit of association – is one of the best sushi restaurants in Central Florida. It is by no means perfect, so the claim may be more a reflection of the comparative depth and breadth of Orlando sushidom then a towering, objective proclamation. But, where Kabooki is good, it is very good, and where it falls flat, it does so with its eyes to the sky via a kitchen that is relentlessly aspirational.
You could be excused for overlooking Kabooki altogether. It sits adjacent to an InstaLoan and a uBreakiFix on a stretch of East Colonial Drive that seems to never make good on its promise of becoming interesting. Kabooki can be expensive, so some may find the neighboring InstaLoan valuable, and I suppose uBreakiFix could service the soy-sauce-fingered diners eagerly snapping instapics. But, Kabooki is really the only good reason to pull into what barely registers as a parking lot (there is additional parking on the east side on the building).
This was my second visit to Kabooki, being lured out of my bubble for both meals by nearby events – one at Amway and one at The Plaza (which is ½ mile away). Headed east on Colonial from downtown, look to the south side of the road for the colorful mural of a Kabuki actor toying with a tiger that adorns the strip mall’s western wall. It’s the only sign of life. Don’t be dissuaded. Inside, Kabooki is lively. It is busy and buzzy. It is also “intimate.” Meaning, it’s small and tables near the front can suffer from their proximity to the door. We were seated in the front. Near the door. No biggie. Drinks. Bring us drinks.
So, sake. When it comes to sake, I’ve been a bit of a kept man. I’ve had my share of excellent sake, the names and prices of which are hidden behind a blur of expensed dinners and generous dining companions. I claim no expertise. My relationship with rice wine is akin to my past relationship with cocaine. I rarely paid for it and what I ingested was expensive and good. I couldn’t tell you what an 8-ball cost or the proper way to turn a $100 bill into a straw, but I can tell the difference between Peruvian flake and talcum powder. I digress. Dining companions Pretty Bird and Munch wanted sake. The sake selection at Kabooki is thoughtful and although far from extensive, it features far more interesting selections than the majority of Japanese restaurants in town. Despite my general ignorance, I recognized a few solid labels; Pearls of Simplicity at $35, for instance. But, again, I know slightly more than zilch about sake. Why are you even reading this?
I personally opt for wine or beer (or free sake) with Japanese food. When it’s wine, it’s white, and with a fair degree of sharpness and acidity. As with the sake on menu, the wine selection at Kabooki is limited, and for some inexplicable reason, several choices are devoid of chateau/winery or vintage (may I interest you in an unnamed glass of non-vintage Beaujolais from a place called Burgundy?) As a bit of an oenophile, I find this practice unsettling. It’s either pretentiously unpretentious, a tad too Brooklyn, or just lazy. Regardless of the motivation, it’s far too similar to, ‘we have red, white, or pink,” for me to be at peace with it. Granted, there are specifics for some listings, but it’s oddly inconsistent and worth noting.
Like most smart restaurants, Kabooki will provide a small pour of vino to ensure you enjoy what you order. A sample of unnamed, undated Dry Riesling from Eden Valley in Australia wasn’t as dry as advertised and suffered from what likely was too much time in an open bottle, so I opted for a mystery Muscadet which was excellent, bone-dry and buoyed by a minerality that paired very well with our meal.
To get a sense of the kitchen’s range we started with a quartet of fairly diverse small plates; Hamachi Carpaccio, Yucca Fritters, and two specials; Miso-Butter Scallops and Hot Rock Wagyu Beef.
The Hamachi (yellowtail) Carpaccio was artfully presented with edible flowers, thinly sliced Thai chilies, and radishes. It was exceptionally fresh, the flavor enhanced by a slightly floral kaffir lime oil which was offset by the tart acidity of ponzu. This is a light winner of a dish and an excellent palate prepper ($15).
When asked, our waitress gushed about the Yucca fritters, and although neatly plated, I found both the texture and flavors far too single note – flat. Small pieces of tuna, pre-mixed in a spice paste or sauce, are draped over yucca fritters and glued to the plate via an avocado puree. The muddy similarity of texture and the bland, slightly sweet character of the puree with no hint of promised piquancy, made for a shoulder-shrugger of a dish that we just couldn’t get excited about.
I rarely order Wagyu or Kobe beef, but it’s a crowd pleaser and the crowd I run with are always eager to be pleased. In this case, LCD happiness came courtesy of 6 bite-sized slices of Wagyu orbiting a blistering hot stone. The crux of the novelty (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) is that you – dear diner – sear the slices of massaged bovine on the stone before dipping into a spicy ponzu sauce. The result is both tasty and forgettable. Bonus points are awarded for giving me the chance to witness our fourth dining companion, Go-Kart Romeo, cook his beef into oblivion before desecrating the corpse with a 5-minute ponzu bath. Philistine.
A special of Miso Butter Scallops created a bit of a schism at our table – Pretty Bird loved it, whereas I felt the dish didn’t quite live up to its billing. I found the scallops a tad overdone and slightly rubbery, and what should have been a winning base of risotto, cauliflower, and pickled shitakes was a tad bland and indistinct. Go-Kart Romeo, he of the well-done Wagyu, also loved the dish and was only too eager to lap up every last piece of risotto, but I would not personally order it again, especially at the price ($19).
Once finished with starters, we eagerly ordered a small array of sashimi and two rolls; Smoking Double Tuna and BookiBooki. The selection of fish at Kabooki may only be rivaled by a handful of Central Florida restaurants; quality and freshness are exceptional. On the evening we dined, fish was sourced from both California and Japan. On my previous visit, there were items flown in from Tsukiji market in Tokyo. Kabooki is serious about its sourcing and the sashimi and nigiri specials are varied and impressive. We ordered Hamachi Toro, Shimaaji, Madai, King Salmon, and Live Uni, reluctantly leaving Otoro, Kin Medai, Kurage, and Kampachi on the menu. Our sashimi arrived on a bed of ice, nestled between sliced and shredded watermelon radish, and accompanied by shiso leaves.
The selection of fish at Kabooki may only be rivaled by a handful of Central Florida restaurants; quality and freshness are exceptional.
The Hamachi Toro (yellowtail belly) was a standout among standouts. A unanimous table favorite, it’s flesh offered a firmness that gave way easily under tooth combined with a mouth-filling fattiness.
I find that when other sushi spots serve mackerel – and I’m talking locally – it’s a minefield of iffy textures and off-putting flavors. Shimaaji (Striped Horse Mackerel) at Kabooki is far different. Made distinct by a sliver of silvery skin, it was cleanly flavored with just the right textural give. God (or whoever) smiled on me and let me live in England for many years, where mackerel is abundant and if not exactly revered, treated with a great deal of respect, cooked or raw. The mackerel at Kabooki reminded of the mackerel I enjoyed there. Good times.
Both the Madai, or red seabream, and fatty slabs of King Salmon had lovely flavor and texture but suffered slightly from being overly thick.
I enjoy uni. Very much. Live uni at Kabooki was separated into pieces and served in an uni shell (with more of the shredded watermelon radish). It had a surprising lightness on the tongue and layers of subtle flavor, but I found it lacked the intensity – the sweet, briny crabby-ness – I prefer. Still, it’s a variation worth exploring and – once again — exceptionally fresh.
I’ll tell you something you already know: sushi rolls taste good. Don’t be a Patrick Bateman. Just pop ‘em in your mouth and smile. The Smoking Double Tuna roll at Kabooki is a funhouse of spicy tuna, avocado, and cilantro, topped with blow torched escolar, serrano peppers, spicy mayo, and sriracha. The BookiBooki features shrimp tempura, mayo, avocado, spicy tuna, and bubu arare. Did I order the rolls? Of course not. Did I enjoy them? Absolutely. Did I have to Google bubu arare? 100% (tiny baked rice crackers). I honestly try not to overthink rolls. So long as the flavors and textures work in concert, and the ingredients are fresh, and here they do (and are), they’re a fine thing. A very fine thing indeed.
A cornerstone of Kabuki – Japanese theatre – is elaborate makeup. This is where its namesake, Kabooki, can fall short; when cosmetics eclipse substance.
Sushi roll love aside, the sashimi and nigiri is – currently — the principal inspiration for my visits to Kabooki. For comparison’s sake, I’ve only had better sashimi in two places in Orlando; the rock star that is Sushi Pop in Oviedo, and too-cool-for-school upstart, Kadence. Reviewing sushi restaurants always presents an interesting dilemma – if a restaurant masters its selection, freshness/quality, and knife skills, separating the best of the best becomes an exercise in deciphering the artistry hidden in the subtleties, and if forced to voice a critique, I felt that apart from the Hamachi Toro, the cuts at Kabooki were a bit heftier and blockier than I enjoy.
A cornerstone of Kabuki – Japanese theatre – is elaborate makeup. This is where its namesake, Kabooki, can fall short; when cosmetics eclipse substance. Kabooki’s range of small plates are imaginatively conceived and artfully presented but aren’t always fully realized on the palate. This is a minor grievance. Some dishes shoot for the stars and land on the moon. Nothing that would stop me from returning, but my hope is that as Kabooki continues to refine itself, its kitchen’s aspirations catch up with its top-notch sushi.
My advice for dining at Kabooki is twofold. First, find a reason to go. You need to get that iPhone screen fixed, and who doesn’t want to get high on rice wine and see Gordon Lightfoot at The Plaza? Am I right? Second, let yourself enjoy the spectacle – ride the rollercoaster that are Kabooki’s inventive small plates – but keep it simple when you eventually decide to get down to business because sashimi and nigiri are where Kabooki currently shines.