By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
The group that owns SoHo Sushi on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa had its eye on downtown St. Petersburg for a while. According to Kevin West, operations manager for the ownership group, "When you think of an exciting downtown environment, I don't think of downtown Tampa. We knew we wanted to be in downtown St. Petersburg."
Fair enough. It's been heady to witness the explosive growth of restaurants and bars downtown. But there are some cuisines that have fairly dense representation. For instance, within about a block, there's heavy Italian: Bici Trattoria, the just-opened Il Ritorno, the soon-to-relocated Moscato's and the around-the-corner Primi Ristorante Italiano. All fine if they each fit a slightly different niche. The same can be said of moderately priced Thai/Japanese/Asian-hodgepodge restaurants. There are the longstanding King and I, and Bangkok 9, as well as newcomers like Lemon Grass and La V.
Sushi Inc. opened a month ago after making substantial improvements to the former Ratchada space, adding long tables on wheels outside, repainting and gussying up the two dining rooms, including the addition of an inviting, long, curved cocktail bar. But the menu is very similar to those aforementioned restaurants. At lunch, there are bento-style boxes stacked with teriyaki chicken, workhorse sushi rolls, tempura veggies and gingery iceberg salad. There's a long list of traditional and specialty rolls, many jazzed up with tempura crunchies, Sriracha and spicy mayo. There are Chinese-style fried rice dishes and guilty pleasures like cream cheese-stuffed deep-fried wonton purses (I bet the Burmese would be tickled by crab Rangoon).
In short, the Sushi Inc. menu is so similar to a number of others downtown that it begs comparison. Portions are generous at Sushi Inc., but prices are a hair above those mentioned above. A full bar and ambitious bartenders are in the plus column; the saccharine soundtrack of Flock of Seagulls and Modern English were for me a shuddery minus.
What caught my eye as "something different" was the short list of ramen. As any college kid will tell you, ramen are those noodles that sustain life between final exams. But truly there's been a ramen revolution in this country, hand-pulled noodles dropped into sumptuous broths with exciting toppings and garnishes. These are not those ramen, the finished product more akin to dorm-room snacks. It's too bad, because it was the only part of the menu that seemed fresh to me.
I'm a big fan of SoHo Sushi on Kennedy, which boasts the same menu at almost identical prices. But at SoHo, the tempura is lighter and less greasy (at Sushi Inc. the batter is a dauntingly thick crust). The rolls at SoHo are prepared with more care, their saucing and flavor juxtapositions more precise. Obviously, it's a more seasoned restaurant with a veteran kitchen and waitstaff and thus perhaps unfair to compare to a wobbly rookie.
That said, in such a dense playing field as downtown St. Petersburg, in a culinary niche that already teems with contenders, Sushi Inc. will have to step up its game. There are some commendable dishes, from sweet-savory pan-fried udon noodles with tender beef ($9.99) to simple fried tofu with steamed veggies and a mirin-lush sauce ($5.99). But much else seems too pedestrian, verging on sloppy, to win St. Petersburg's heart.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.