By LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
TAMPA — We have California rolls aplenty. There are teppanyaki grills all over west-central Florida, onion volcanos burbling and shrimp tails being flicked into chef hats even as we speak. Still, there's precious little dynamic and innovative Japanese cooking being done in these parts.
So James DeVito, owner of Taps in downtown's SkyPoint condominium building, had to cast a wide net when hiring for Rawbar, which opened next door to Taps in May. He found Naohiro Higuchi, who relocated from Miami to open this new hot spot. Chef Nao, as everyone calls Higuchi, most recently served as executive chef at the short-lived Domo in Miami's Design District. Before that he was at Nobu in the Bahamas, Restaurant le Pacifique in Monte Carlo and Sushi Samba in Miami Beach.
And now he's ours, for which we should be thankful. The restaurant itself is stylish and trendy, a long bar running along the back and clubby outdoor seating right on Ashley Drive. It's clearly going to be a nightspot of note, especially once Tampa spends a little time getting chummy with the signature cocktail list (a super-tangy Bombay gin martini with pear and fresh yuzu juice; a suave cucumber gimlet; lychee juice, ginger and yamamomo mountain peach adding exotic twists to other glamorous drinks).
Since the restaurant opened, Chef Nao has been the sole sushi roller. Let's hope he finds some worthy apprentices or he's going to be flirting with carpal tunnel syndrome. His sushi is exceptional — partly due to the freshness of the fish, partly the deftness of the flavor and texture juxtapositions and partly because of the unusual sauces and garnishes. Crisp-tender asparagus roll ($7) gets a drop-dead-luscious white sesame tofu sauce. Sweet scallop ($11) is paired with tiny pops of tobiko roe, a ribbon of cuke and a whiff of white truffle oil along with a cured plum sauce.
Some may seem far-fetched: Shrimp roll wrapped in prosciutto ($12) with a poof of watercress, then paired with a zingy pineapple ginger sauce. But they work. Soy sauce is served in mad-scientist plastic pipettes, pickled ginger isn't that ubiquitous neon pink atrocity and additional sauces are always surprises (peanut chili sauce comes with shrimp tempura roll, $10, its sweet-hot flavor marrying beautifully with the almost Rice Krispies-coated crustacean).
Some menu descriptions are inscrutable (a spicy tuna roll is explained thus: "kaiware, arare, dou ban jiang chili sauce." What?), and it take a few rolls to add up to a meal. So don't stop at the sushi. Served in fairly small portions, a range of hot plates also pushes the envelope, several of them a true test of chopstick prowess: Nasu dengaku ($7) is a hunk of soft-fleshed eggplant painted with a sweet miso glaze; a scoop of delicious slow-braised short rib ($13) comes atop a disc of cooked daikon in a savory broth dotted with slow-burn chili threads and peppery mizuna. Perhaps my favorite dish on a couple of visits was finger food: flash-fried shishito peppers with sea salt ($6). Just hotter than bell peppers, these are two-biters with a lovely sweet nuttiness.
Rawbar, as with all new restaurants, is still working the kinks out. Servers are attentive but frazzled by the amount of explication this menu routinely requires; pacing can be quirky as the kitchen gets its feet under it. Be patient — for once, we've got the cutting edge in Japanese cuisine right here and Nao.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.