When Eric Fralick first fell in love with Japan, it was with anime and video games. It was much later that other kinds of love settled in.
He moved to the country for five years after college, living in the city of Shizuoka and in Tokyo and learning the allures of izakaya, the casual pub-style restaurants frequently equipped with picture menus and a communal small-plate approach. Back stateside, he met his wife Adriana, a Tampa native, in New York. Together they started an iced tea company called Sweet Dispositions (it's huge in Switzerland and Germany), and later began bottling their tea via a company in Dade City.
Fralick may not have had a rough time finding Japanese anime and video games in this country, but the Tampa Bay area was exceedingly lean on the kind of izakaya he had fallen in love with. And so Noble Rice was born in July in an old guitar shop on Platt Street.
What's interesting is that a number of other people had loosely the same good idea at the same time. Prior to 2016, Japanese food in these parts meant mostly sushi, often of the cream-cheese-and-extra-eel-sauce variety. Ichicoro shook things up in Seminole Heights and Buya Ramen in St. Petersburg and others followed.
Still, what Fralick is doing is a bit different from anything we've had around here. True World seafood is bringing him fish species straight from the Tsukiji fish market in Japan; he's getting Hawaiian fish from Hawaiian Fresh; and he's sourcing Ora King Salmon, a highly prized farmed fish, from New Zealand. In short, his fish is exceedingly good, flown in several times a week, offered in a range of pristine nigiri, sashimi, hosomaki (the traditional thin rolls), uramaki (the rolls with the rice on the outside) and temaki (cone-shaped hand rolls). There's an uni omakase, the sea urchin served three ways ($25), and specialty rolls that show a deft and nearly spare sensibility so the fish shines (the Tengo roll, $15, marries crab, scallop and scallion in a roll and tops it with shrimp).
But you'd be missing out if you hewed narrowly to the sushi menu alone. There's an extensive list of yakitori and kushiyaki, essentially little grilled nibbles. Chicken takes center stage in this lineup (thigh, tail, heart in two preparations), but my favorites included a grilled, scoopable avocado with a citrusy ponzu and swipe of wasabi ($5), a skewer of grilled shishito peppers glossed with a black pepper soy basting sauce ($3), and a couple medallions of super tender beef tenderloin topped with disks of black truffle and scallion compound butter ($8).
These are meant to be shared, chopsticks flashing in the charming small dining room (exposed brick, lots of reclaimed wood and rustic, unclothed wooden tables). There's a short beer and wine list, but sake is the bev of choice here, ranging from a clean, light Kirinzan classic ($15 per carafe) to a sweet and fruity Amabuki Junmai Ginjo Nama Strawberry ($70 for a big bottle).
Fortify yourself and keep going to the next page of the menu. The ramen options feature wavy noodles from Sun Noodle in New York and broths with real depth of flavor, the Noble version and shoyu (both $15) layering chicken broth with pork stock and soy tare. The most distinctive option is the Tan Tan Men ($16) with thicker temomi noodles in an intense chicken broth given a little kick of heat from hot chili paste and crowded with ground pork, bean sprouts, fermented bamboo shoots and green onion. A gorgeous bowl of soup.
An array of hot and cold small plates may complicate your decision making — although Noble Rice's small and fiercely enthusiastic staff knows this menu cold, so they can help. Cider-braised brussels sprouts ($10) are a revelation, as is the karaage ($10): spicy fried chicken, super crunchy, paired with a sweet sesame mayo (you can have this same chicken in a pair of pillowy buns with red-eye gravy and micro greens, $10).
Fralick, six foot four with salt and pepper hair, doesn't look much like Jiro Ono or other sushi masters, but in an unassuming space he's brought us some of the most exciting izakaya this area has yet seen.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.