I’ve noticed a trend recently of small towns, that less than a decade ago offered nothing more than aging diners and fast food chains, are sprouting innovative restaurants serving stunning cuisine on par with the best in the country (i.e. Indigenous, Red Door and Rooster & the Till). It could be that these youngsters are tired of killing themselves trying to compete with the heavy hitters in the big cities, or maybe it’s a desire to bring their talent and creativity to a new and less obvious markets. Whatever it is, these little towns are not only benefitting, but reciprocating the trust shown by these restaurants with their patronage.
A great example of this trend is Sushi Pop, a high energy, day-glo wonderland of Japanese cuisine that’s more Omotesando than Oviedo. On an otherwise sleepy street, the bright pink signage serves as a beacon to the hungry masses…in a town of less than 50,000 people. Yet when you cross the threshold, it seems as if the whole town simultaneously had a hankering for hamachi.
For the better part of two years, a certain sibling who will remain nameless (Lobe) had been pestering me to visit Sushi Pop. Every month or so I’d get an email detailing their latest uni shipment or some other enticing menu creation by Chef Chau (can you think of a more perfect name for a chef?). However Oviedo is not exactly convenient to get to from Miami or Sarasota. I’ve been known to travel insane distances for great food, but I was having a hard time getting in the car for a multi-hour road trip for sushi.
After finally getting the chance to visit, I am humbled. The food being created at Sushi Pop is the real thing, this ain’t some Nobu knockoff, peddling the same “high-end” Japanese that has become so tiring. Even when you see similarities, like local rock shrimp tempura with tobanjan aioli, Chef Chau and his Chef de cuisine Cesar Cruz put their own spin on it. The crudos offer a glimpse into the Valhalla of fish that is Tsukiji market where Sushi Pop sources much of their seafood. Flavor packed scallops from Hokkaido give a nod to Korea with a punchy kimchee salsa that elevates the succulent bivalves. The ominous sounding hamachi hara kiri takes the bygone samurai tradition to heart with tender cuts of yellowtail belly, fresh from a jaunt through Southeast Asia with chili garlic sauce, Thai basil, shallot oil and toasted peanuts.
The tour of Asia’s finest cuisine isn’t confined to seafood, as is demonstrated with Sushi Pop’s take on KFC (Korean fried chicken). Sweet and spicy gochujang lacquers the crispy wings which give way to the moist meat below, spiked with toasted white sesame and scallion. You want veg? Sushi Pop executes on that front with a beautiful plate of hibachi grilled asparagus, meaty garlic braised mushrooms and soy glazed pea shoots.
Perhaps the miso braised short rib open faced ravioli is more your speed? And why not, what with a truffled brown butter quail egg under an avalanche of tome cheese. Of course pork belly is always an option. That night the dish was a superb trio of Kurobuta tacos with braised Berkshire pork belly, hoisin bbq sauce, scallions, micro cilantro and avocado.
It’s easy to get caught up in the early stages of the menu and forget all about Sushi Pop’s namesake. Naturally there’s an extensive list of maki rolls, many with touches of Korea, France and Porkbellistan, but the initiated will know to sample the nigiri and sashimi section first. All of the usual suspects are here, fresh from Tsukiji and priced to move, even the Otoro and Uni remained attainable. However the nigiri specials beckoned.
It’s one thing to fly in high-end fish from Japan and call it a day, it’s an entirely different thing to take said fish and start riffing. It’s a bold move, one that could easily lead to over sauced, sickeningly sweet concoctions that waste the beautiful protein. Thankfully these Oviedo otaku display incredible reverence for the seafaring treasures they serve, bestowing each with complimentary flavors that only elevate the fish. A belly duo seemed appropriate, in both salmon and yellowtail varieties. The former, adorned with Chinese ginger, shallot salsa, white soy and radish sprouts was revelation. The fat striped salmon, with it’s subdued, buttery flavor was countered with the fantastic acid from the ginger and shallot. The yellowtail, took a page out of Mr. Matsuhisa’s Peruvian inspired book with jalepeño, lime zest sauce and cilantro sprouts, fantastic.
Ah it’s the end of the post, you all know what that means, dessert. Granted, Japanese restaurants aren’t typically known for their desserts, but I think we’ve established that this isn’t a normal Japanese restaurant. This is the kind that takes Japanese sweet potatoes and makes bread pudding out of it. Toasted marshmallows and a reflecting pool of Saigon crème anglaise join a nice scoop of praline ice cream, complete with a bacon hat. Not to be outdone is the P.M.S., the diabetus (sic) inducing combination of peanut butter crumbles, molten chocolate cake and salted caramel ice cream.
It’s rare for a restaurant to deliver dish after stunning dish with such consistency, especially with a packed house on a Saturday night. I just hate that Sushi Pop is so far from me, or anything else for that matter! Hey Chef, keep us gulf coasters in mind when you open up your next outpost. I know a bunch of serious sushi savants who’d love a chance to savor your Tsukiji fare…just saying.