The text said, "Two hour wait for sushi in Seminole!" It was from Taster's Choice columnist Kathy Saunders. It must have been a fluke, I thought. In Seminole? But the woman speaks truth. A longtime favorite Pinellas County sushi spot called Osaka closed last year in Madeira Beach, reopening Oct. 14 in Seminole after many months of sushi fans fogging up the windows in anticipation. • This place is jamming. And with good reason. The vast lineup of specialty rolls benefits from vibrantly fresh fish, meticulously rolled, sauced and plated. These can be accompanied by traditional sashimi, tamaki and Japanese appetizers from seaweed salad to grilled whole squid and a range of greaseless tempura dishes. Then add to this an ethnically confusing but very competent menu of Thai classics, from panang curry to deep bowls of steaming tom kha gai.
This is a case where "something for everyone" works — serious sushi enthusiasts won't get sniffy about the fish quality, kids can dive into teriyaki chicken, etc. The sprawling space is attractive and hip, with a red-and-black color scheme, sleek concrete floors and an outdoor patio that seems to get its fair share of both highchairs and girls-night-outers doing sake bombs. (The whooping is not optional, apparently.) But these are not the reasons I think Osaka is doing a gangbuster business three months in.
It is because the word "sexy" appears seven times on the menu.
The coin of the realm is the Sexy Man roll ($13.95), a great combination of avo, tuna, tempura eel, scallion, tobiko and "sexy man sauce." (Let's not go there.) The Sexy Woman ($13.95) pairs tempura shrimp with beets. (Seems like a roll Tom Robbins would order: "The beet is the most intense of vegetables.") And if you like your sexiness less anonymous, there's a Sexy John ($13.95) and a Sexy Alhen (this guy has a more Liberace aesthetic, with escolar, tuna, krab and other kitchen-sinkiness; $14.95). The sexiness doesn't stop with rolls; there's a house specialty entree called Two Sexy Girls ($17.95), the girls in question being shrimp and chicken, which you can get with your choice of sauce, from red curry to panang, but no sexy man sauce. (Fine, I went there.)
Is it getting warm in here?
Because Osaka does a consistently epic business, servers seem perennially on the run and may require some firm flagging down from time to time. That said, they seem very familiar with the novella-length menu and are able to direct you to the good stuff. You won't be wowed by the wine list, the short lineup of beers or the desserts, but the rolls seem to have already cemented Osaka's reputation even among the beach tourists across the little Intracoastal Waterway bridge.
Because this is also a Thai restaurant, there is nothing goofy about ordering spicy rolls "Thai hot." This goes for the Spicy Mussel ($6.95), Salmon ($5.95) or Spicy Madeira with fried salmon and crunchy bits ($5.95). In general, I tend to like sushi rolls pared back so that the taste of the fish dominates, but Osaka offers dozens of rolls that are successfully piled high with different fishes, sauces and accessories (plus, it's fun to order a Master of Disaster or an M.C. Hammer), all of them plated cleanly on broad white enamel trays, some rectangular and some pie-wedge shaped.
So why is a West Side Story a West Side Story ($16.95)? Is there something Sharks and Jets about escolar and tuna? I've seen the musical plenty of times and don't see it, but what arrives is "the swingin'est thing" jammed with four kinds of fish and topped with four others. And is there something about the Laura roll ($14.95) that resonates with me? Barbecue eel two ways and yellowtail two ways — yes, that sounds about right. They've got my number.
On the Thai side, little new ground is covered, but the fundamentals are dialed. Pick a preparation from peanut sauce to red curry, then choose your protein (often $10.95 for chicken, pork or tofu and $12.95 for beef or seafood). Veggies are tender-crisp, meats are nicely cubed and stir-fried and finished bowls are visually attractive, with domes of white rice served on the side.
For now, Osaka is not taking reservations. But in case I've spooked you with all my talk of its busyness, on one of two visits we had a short wait, and on the other we slid right into a table on the patio. My guess is in high season owner Viroon Charoenmitr and staff will continue the mad hustle that for them started in Mad Beach. Because who isn't looking for a good Sexy (Wo)Man?
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.