By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
The past three years have been tough for Tampa Bay fine-dining restaurants. When Hapa — which mainly had a niche clientele — closed, chef-owner Brett Gardiner moved to Pelagia Trattoria and Beimei Kohler took over the space. She did away with the heavy curtains, lightened the decor and added a sushi bar, launching Aki Sushi recently.
On a couple of recent visits it wasn't busy, but it deserves to be. Kohler has a teeny staff, doing much of the service herself. The menu is similarly pithy, about a dozen classic rolls and another dozen specialty rolls, plus a big handful of familiar soups, salads and appetizers.
Pan-fried pork gyoza ($4.50) bring six tidily formed dumplings with a toothsome, just-crusted exterior, a nice foil for more tender steamed shumai ($6.95), bouncy chopped pink shrimp peeking out the top of the delicately crimped dim sum classic. For something more gooey-decadent, we shared a quartet of krab rangoon (the consonant change an expedient way of indicating the fake-crab kamaboko pressed fish), the crunchy wrapper giving way to scallion-flecked cream cheese.
Then it was time to roll: The passion roll ($11.95) is for the sweet tooth, spoonfuls of Chinese chile sauce and slivers of mango lending a real fruity edge to the shrimp tempura, tuna and cuke. My favorite was a more pared back Tokyo roll ($11.95), yellowtail and spicy tuna given a wasabi wallop and a dab of masago (although the orange fish eggs had the pop of the slightly larger tobiko) and a hint of lime.
Citrus lent drama to another successful roll, this one called the candy cane ($11.95), more spicy tuna and escolar (an oily, mackerel-like fish that is controversial because of its stomach-upsetting effects on a small percentage of the population), the fish and plush avocado lent a little textural drama with sesame seeds and crunchy bits.
Presentation at Aki is clean and appealing, without a lot of garniture beyond a bud of wasabi and a tangle of pickled ginger. Soy is offered in regular or low salt (tradition has it that low salt is indicated by a green cap, high-test with red), and chopsticks are the conjoined, paper-wrapped classics. The beverage offerings are a no-nonsense array of familiar beers, sake, wine and soda, well suited to the price point and aims of the menu.
Hapa's closure was a loss for Oldsmar, as it represented the most ambitious culinary agenda in town. But Kohler and crew have retooled the space and launched an appealing and affordable everyday kind of Japanese restaurant, one that has potential for a broader fan base.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter, @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.