Sushi in St. Petersburg. There's a little bit downtown (Ratchada, Rollbotto), and then it's a tossup. Heading north, which has the better pickings, Fourth Street or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street? On MLK you've got longtimers like Hook's and Sushi Rock. But on Fourth there's snazzy Hiro's and Korean-inflected Sushi Zen. Mang's was another workhorse entry on Fourth, a large, fairly casual affair with hibachi on one side and sushi bar on the other.
Betty Le and Kahn Ong took over the defunct Mang's space at the end of December. Both Vietnamese, together they own a mostly Vietnamese-patronized cafe on Armenia Avenue in Tampa. But they fell in love with Japanese cuisine while attending a community college in Washington state, Kahn spending time learning the intricacies of fresh fish preparation and sushi rolling.
The result is a respectable, inviting newbie that just might tip the balance in the direction of Fourth Street. Initially they served lunch, abandoning it recently to spend more daytime hours with their newborn (well, and since they found lunch business was a little slow along Fourth Street). Now it's dinner-only, with $1 sushi before 7 p.m. that seems to draw a sizable crowd of bargain hunters tweezing up fat duos of yellowtail and eel nigiri with a waggle in wasabi-murked soy sauce.
On a couple of visits, though, I found the specialty rolls to be the real reason to visit Koi. The hibachi dinners, with combinations like steak, shrimp and scallops ($24.95), brought simple, flavorful goods, but none of it rose to memorable. With the specialty rolls I got drama.
The place to start is with the eye-catching Avocado Bomb ($4.95), "leaves" of plush avocado fanned to hide a filling of crab, the whole green globe drizzled with sweet eel sauce and a tangier mustard. Those not as chopstick-dextrous may want to wade in with an order of salted edamame ($3.95) or a generous portion of shrimp and veggie tempura ($5.95), where fingers are fully sanctioned vehicles.
Specialty rolls are big, so don't get crazy. Pace yourself and share with friends. A lovely place to start is with the Heartbreak Roll ($11.95), a heart-shaped roll with spicy tuna at its center and fresh tuna laid over the top — with little dabs of sauce and bits of tobiko, the whole tableau looks like the painting of a battalion of butterflies taking wing. Spicy tuna fans will also enjoy the Geisha ($12.95) which adds textural crunch with tobiko and fried onions, dots of spicy mayo kicking it up a notch.
The B-52 roll ($13.95) is a big ol' party, but still well rolled and thoughtfully balanced: Its center is tempura shrimp and white asparagus, the roll topped with crab and eel and then drizzled with a little eel sauce and spicy mayo. It's got crunch, it's got plush, sweet and spice. My only objection is that the roll is so fat I look like a barbarian trying to maneuver it mouthward. Eh, so maybe not on a date.
Even the classic rolls, from California ($3.95) to tekka ($4.95) are carefully constructed and made with fresh-tasting ingredients. And as St. Pete bargain hunters may already know, until 7 p.m. most pairs of nigiri are offered for a buck (ordinarily $2.95 to $5.95). A few of those washed down with a large hot sake ($6) and it starts feeling like a pretty satisfying dinner.
The owners are both warm presences in the restaurant, Betty in the front of the house and Kahn behind the sushi counter, where he is equally adept at talking football or the details of an omakase (that's when you say, "Chef, let it rip. I'm leaving the driving to you."). There is a short and uninteresting wine list (but fair-priced, with all bottles $20 or under), familiar beers and a more laudable range of sakes (including the fruity, medium dry Tomoju in the junmai ginjo style).
The building itself has changed little since the Mang's days, and in fact the sign out front is the Mang's sign with "Koi" meticulously painted over it. That said, this newcomer is doing enough right that the Fourth Street corridor may now be the go-to spot for St. Petersburg sushi.
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.