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Sushi fans come to the right place

This city doesn't really need more sushi. With at least five places serving sushi within 10 blocks of Central Avenue, by my count, downtown would seem to have leapt firmly into the 1980s and need ask for nothing more.

Sushi is so widely available around the Tampa Bay area, it removes any excuse for the not-so-fresh fish that appears in restaurants of other stripes.

But the movie mall at BayWalk desperately needed a serving of sophistication.

It finally gets some uptown taste and civilized space, along with mighty handsome hand rolls, at Tokyo Sushi Cafe. BayWalk's newest restaurant was opened by entrepreneurs Hiro Lin and Michael Chan, who have a Japanese steakhouse and sushi bar in Tarpon Springs.

Tokyo's a pleasant oasis, once you make it through BayWalk's Elton John karaoke and Sinatra-Buffett lounge tunes, mix of cotton candy daiquiris and adult martinis, and out-of-place tourists.

On the second floor, between Dish and Grattzi, is a little room of quiet sienna, blond wood and seating for about 40, good music and, best of all, a chef with a sharp knife and sushi fans who appreciate it.

The knife belongs to Tom Paksupan, who worked at Haiku under Shinji Okano, the first true master in St. Petersburg. Some of that magic lives on at Tokyo.

Sushi would be enough, but Tokyo's kitchen delivers a good deal more _ noodles, for one, or rather two, because I was pleased with the soba and the udon. The brown soba noodles of buckwheat were cooked to order and chilled, served cold with a few greens and bonito flakes. They are great textures alone or spiked with a tart dipping sauce, the best I've had east of Los Angeles. You can also get them in broth with tempura or in something of a stir-fry.

The udon was in classic style, hot broth with fresh carrots and squash, and fat, square-cut white noodles in a personal iron pot sitting on a rustic wooden box with a plate of tempura on the side. The noodles sound simple and boring, but their slightly chewy texture and bland flavor make them as warmly nourishing as dumplings. The finely crusted shrimp tempura on the side made a lovely counterpoint, although the tempura vegetables were too thick and soft.

As for sushi, you'll get the best selection on weekends, when the place is busiest. On weeknight visits there was no sea urchin, my test for a full inventory, but the bar did have rare hamachi belly. That may sound esoteric, but the key to ordering sushi and sashimi is knowing your way around fish and fish anatomy. Though all raw tuna tastes like raw beef, the fatty belly, called toro, tastes like well-marbled prime steak (and usually costs a buck or two more).

On this night, Paksupan had scored some good white fish, a yellowtail snapper big enough to yield a piece from the belly, which he carefully cut into slices incredibly lush and tender. If you don't like sushi, that sounds appalling; if you know what I mean, you know what I mean.

The bar also excelled with eel, which sometimes is comparable to smoked mullet (I'm not complaining), but here it tasted moist and fresh, as if it had just been caught and cooked, remarkably mild.

Beyond the sashimi, the bar makes a broad range of clever rolls, from the poorly named atomic bomb (tuna with crunchies, avocado and salmon) to nifty little hand rolls with spicy tuna or snow crab in nori cones. Unfortunately, a number of the rolls include some of my least favorite things (in sushi): mayonnaise, cream cheese and Japan's contribution, surimi. But there's plenty else.

Among other appetizers, I always like sunomono, and the cucumber salad is a little sweet and fairly heavy on sashimi. A meaty starter, beef wrapped around green onions, was too dry; I like it when it tastes as if it were just cooked.

Japanese beer or warm sake seems appropriate, but I'd recommend sharing a bottle of unfiltered sake served cold. There's a hint of coconut and other spices hidden in its cloudy color. Rice never tasted so good.

Sushi is never a cheap thrill, but Tokyo has a few nigiri for $3.50, a roll or three for $4 apiece, as well as noodles and appetizers that can make light meals for less than $10. Lunches cost almost $10 and most nonsushi dinner entrees $15, so for most of us, dining at a sushi bar remains a special treat.

At Tokyo it is, and a growing crowd of sushi fans is making its way through BayWalk to find it. Good for the fans, and good for any sushi bar: The bigger the crowd, the fresher the fish.

REVIEW

TOKYO SUSHI CAFE

BayWalk

195 Second Ave. N

St. Petersburg

(727) 823-1912

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, 4:30 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4:30 to midnight Friday-Saturday, 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday.

Reservations: Weekdays only.

Details: Most credit cards accepted; beer, wine served.

Prices: Sushi, $3 to $12. Lunch, $7.95 to $17; dinner, $7 to $25.

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