When friends Mike Harting and Patrick Marston put their heads together to sleuth out untrammeled ground in downtown St. Petersburg's increasingly dense restaurant landscape, they came at it from a number of directions. First, they chose a spot at 435 Fifth Ave. N that offers something increasingly rare: parking (seriously, stalking pedestrians for their parking spaces is practically a hobby these days along Beach Drive). And they chose upscale Asian fusion as a cuisine — yes, there is a lot of Asian downtown (the Lemon Grass, La V, Sushi Inc., Sab Cafe, I could keep going), but not little-black-dress-worthy. And finally, in this era of exhaustive booze, craft beer and cocktail lists, they opted for a trim, curated approach to liquids.
The result is Souzou, which opened slickly in June but holds its grand opening Thursday night (with a cool promotion whereby the first 100 reservations get a $100 gift certificate to "pay it forward"). In a couple of visits, I found the handsome restaurant to be a purveyor of more or less Japanese cuisine with a few Chinese and Korean doodads — not precisely fusion, but a welcome addition to the downtown lineup.
The single best thing on the menu (and I'm not alone on this; everyone who's been to Souzou mentions these) are the meatballs, called tsukune ($12), which bring a passel of bouncy mixed beef and pork orbs glistening with a deep chocolate-colored hoisin glaze and served atop a sprightly Asian slaw, the spheres lightly dusted with sesame seed. Traditionally, these Japanese meatballs are made of chicken, often with a sweet soy sauce that leans toward teriyaki. These are a great reinterpretation.
Pork belly "bulgogi" buns are another crowd pleaser, this one with a Korean accent: pillowy white buns barely corral a hootenanny of plush pork belly with a bit of barbecue sauce and a tumble of salty-tangy-spicy kimchi ($13). We're seeing a lot of spins on this dish in the area these days, but this is a winner.
I've already written about the 182-seat restaurant's glamor, St. Petersburg design firm T2theS responsible for much of it (with artist Scott Fisher behind the striking black-and-white shogun canvases). A white granite bar is inset with LED lights; black leather booths (for two or four) flank two sides of the back dining room, while the front bar room gets gorgeous rough-hewn tables made of natural-edged walnut slabs.
But what I was waiting to find out was how sushi chef Viet Vo (a sushi chef at the Sandpearl and Sushi Alive) and executive chef Ty Weaver would work together to create the full menu. The answer is: very effectively. Souzou works best as a mix-and-match small-plates approach. Order some rolls — the Souzou snapper roll is lovely with its tempura fresh fish and slips of scallion with a demure drizzle of eel sauce ($10), but I also enjoyed a 90210 roll with snow crab, cuke and avo ($10); the only thing I didn't realize was that an order of zuwaigani (snow crab, $8) would bring just a bowl of chopped snow crab, ostensibly to dab on other rolls? — but then arrive at a consensus on a couple hot or cold other dishes.
Fish yakitori skewers ($22) feature an appealing ginger lime glaze (their accompanying green tea soba noodles were sadly a bit mushy), and Japanese fried rice brings a perfect dome of veggie-studded soy-tinged rice with a staring eye of fried quail egg perched on top ($12).
Much of Souzou's food is accessible and affordable enough to appeal to the whole family. But then there are cocktails like the watermelon rickey ($12) or the ZEN-gria (a refreshing kitchen-sink concoction of pear sake, pinot grigio and fruit juices; $12) that make it a logical new girls' night out destination. And even since its debut several weeks ago, the staff of nearly 60 has nailed down their at-table patter and meal pacing. That's not surprising, given Mike Harting's background (3 Daughters; formerly BellaBrava and Outback), as well as that of managing partner Julie Parrish (also Outback). It's an already-steady contender for St. Petersburg's affections, and a whole lot of parking may tip things into full-blown infatuation.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.