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Poetry on a plate

The sushi of Haiku proves a work of art in its presentation and especially in its freshness.

The name begs and I cannot resist:

Is it art to eat,

life plucked from yesterday's seas

or plain old cold fish?

Okay, so the Nibbler is no master of the haiku (I'll stick to Spam). But Shinji Okano is one with sushi, parsing seafood into small bites of beauty.

As much as sushi chefs dazzle us with their bladework and intricate assembly, their cooking (or not cooking) depends on the ingredients. They choose each piece of fish as much care as poets do words.

Okano's care shows especially in tuna, which you may know resembles raw steak. As with prime beef, the key factor is the fattiness that makes the meat silky and tender. Thus, toro or fatty tuna is most prized and Okano's resembles Kobe beef; for ordinary maguro he seeks out the belly side of the tuna. Likewise, he boasted that the yellowtail, which was as sublime as the tuna, came from the stomach region.

Some is local, but he goes the distance for air-freighted tuna from Hawaii, also the favored source for the attached Redwoods restaurant and its Pacific Rim cuisine.

The point is not the origin in anatomy or geography (some of Florida's best fish goes to Japan) but the care of selection.

The result is the best tuna I've tried around town, and that impresses me as much as Haiku's other attraction, its location. St. Petersburg's downtown, desperate for success and hipness, now has sushi, 15 years after it showed up around Tampa Bay and 25 years after it landed stateside. Already, a small clump of upscale downtowners is begging for sushi at lunch.

Hold your seahorses, answer the owners. Emmanuel Roux, who put together the culinary fourplex (Haiku, Redwoods, the Garden and the Lobby bar) backed off from a bakery that was to be a fifth element, to get Haiku running and the Garden revamped. It'll take time to see if downtown has the bucks to make lunchtime sushi pay.

Yet boosters can take comfort that Haiku's sushi and sashimi are more than "pretty good for St. Pete." They're in the first ranks locally.

Which makes Haiku a good place for people trying their first sushi, with the caveats that this can cost $20 a person and be slow if only Okano is making sushi.

Newbies should ignore the know-it-alls, belly up to the sushi bar, confess their lack of knowledge and cool. Just ask what's freshest or simply "What's that?"

The accompanying picture may help more than the menu. On recent visits, Haiku had only the traditional check-off order form, which wasn't clear that various ingredients could be prepared as nigiri (on a rice pad), sashimi (plain fish) or in hand rolls (beautiful cones of seaweed). Side dishes and combinations lacked explanation so I missed the tataki, seared tuna on mixed lettuces. I know sunomono _ rice-vinegared cold salad is a favorite _ but I was clueless about inari (fried tofu) and shiromi usuzukuri (paper thin whitefish).

I'm not asking for Sushi for Dummies, but giving diners this sheet and the Redwoods menu can baffle the savvy. (They forgot the wine list and might as well; it needs more whites and bubbly by the glass.)

Still I ate happily _ and richly, both a la carte and in combinations. I prefer to start with the Haiku salad, an exceptional combination of pencil-thin carrots and asparagus, mixed greens, fresh tofu, daikon radish and, from the undersea garden, the bright green wakame seaweed and the bushy brown limu, in husky sesame dressing.

To simplify ordering, try the $20 sashimi dinner, an exquisite array of pure fish for one, or the $16 chirashi in which fish artfully dress a mound of rice.

Do have someone order more bravely, like the briny red-footed surf clam, salmon richer than lox or gravlax, and anything with uni. That's roe of sea urchin, which may seem the weird of the weird, but this could be the foie gras of Hawaii.

Some offerings are bound to disappoint. Thin slices of abalone were beautiful in an iridescent shell, but stiff to the taste and stiffer to the wallet. A fat futomaki roll of vegetables and surimi was tame and the spider roll would be better with tempura softshell crab, fresh from the fryer. Green tea was served luke-cold and without ceremony.

However, most of your meal will be lovely to eat and see, presented in beautifully glazed stoneware, and the interior's bamboo counters, paper lanterns and art make for handsome presentation.

Yet it is hampered by crowded tables and a clumsy entrance. There are two doors, yet neither has space nor host to assure arriving diners. One night a server sent away a family of five eyeing an empty table for four; a few minutes later, another server squeezed five in.

Enter through Redwoods and Haiku feels sophisticated. Yet come in by the concourse to Jannus Landing and you're in a cluttered alley that's also a rock concert's back door. Downtown St. Petersburg remains a work in progress, sometimes depressingly empty, but that walkway should now be cleaned up to make diners welcome.

We certainly welcome Haiku.



247 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 896-5118Hours: 5:30 to 10 p.m., Tue.-Thur.; 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

Credit cards: AE, DC, MC, V

Reservations: For parties of 8 or more

Details: Full bar; No smoking permitted

Wheelchair access: Good