I'm just going to admit it flat out. Sometimes I pick up grocery store sushi for dinner. I'm not proud of the plastic clamshells lined with zigzag grass-green plastic fronds, or their spicy tuna rolls and blowsy tamago nigiri. It's about expedience. And also about something reasonably healthy that my people will eat. Also, about not cooking but being able to eat three minutes after I turn the car off.
In a number of cities around the world there are restaurants and kiosks that specialize in grab-and-go sushi: the conjoined chopsticks awaiting your liberating snap, tiny globs of wasabi already parsed into plastic ramekins. Tampa has lots of sushi restaurants that do takeout, but their primary business is dine-in. Wesley Chiu is doing something a little different with his new restaurant Kelp, opened in September.
Working with his parents at their Town 'N Country restaurant, Origami, for the past five years, he felt it was time for a second location. He felt South Tampa was missing something: good, quality sushi at a faster pace. He took over a former frozen yogurt spot behind Starbucks in Bay to Bay Plaza, hiring Lisa Gilmore Design to come up with a sleek, industrial-urban look that features a big, open kitchen.
In fact, the fledgling restaurant has only 10 seats inside. And on both my recent visits, these seats were largely taken up with folks awaiting their takeout orders. The staff is still familiarizing itself with the computer system, but once an order goes in, a small kitchen crew kicks into high gear. Of the 24 specialty rolls, many of them are cooked. To me, this seems a decision calculated to appeal to South Tampa families. Kids don't like raw fish? How about tempura-battered chicken breast tucked into a roll with some cuke and Sriracha? And vegetarians have options that are far from perfunctory: A "gold leaf" roll ($9.75) marries mango salsa, shredded carrot, spring mix and sesame seeds with a dab of Thai chili sauce in an appealing way.
Rolls have lyrical names drawn from natural phenomena. I'm not exactly sure what a broiled salmon and krab stick roll ($14.25) has to do with an "ice volcano", other than a juxtaposition of cold and hot, but its accessories of avocado, cuke, tempura flakes, red roe, sesame seeds and drizzles of spicy mayo and chili sauce are balanced and lively. This one looked a little messy in its plastic to-go tray, but the flavors were lovely.
Wholesome and satisfying miso soups ($2.95) get packaged up to thwart automotive mishaps, and side dishes such as seaweed salad ($5.95) and an unusual cold edamame salad ($4.95) with cabbage, cilantro, carrot and bell peppers make refreshing counterparts to the array of rolls.
Many rolls tip upward of $14, which is fairly expensive in this market. This means dinner for four can creep quickly toward triple digits. It will be interesting to see if South Tampa embraces these kinds of prices in what seems to be a prototype for an upscale to-go restaurant. Chiu clearly focuses on quality ingredients, often in interesting juxtapositions: The "rose cave" pairs tempura shrimp with raw tuna, avo, green onion, sweet eel sauce and a bit of kicky mayo ($13.75). No doubt, the flavors and textures of rolled-while-you-wait sushi are a quantum leap from the grocery deli case version, and the prices reflect that.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.