Sushi is often as artful as it is appetizing and in Orlando there are no shortage of options. Not surprisingly, some of the city's best venues come in the form of restaurants that hide in plain sight, tucked into some or other shopping center awaiting discovery. Some are exceedingly local, as frequented by take-out customers as dine-in, others are superb for date night – whether casual or fancy. Topping our list: Seito Baldwin Park, where Chef Austin Boyd and his crew are churning out colorful, flavorful, succulent bites, along with a host of sushi alternatives for the folks who like their Japanese (and "new Japanese" to kiss a hot pan or two before heading to the plate. Not far from here, Kabooki sits in one of those aforementioned strip malls, though the cosmopolitan atmosphere you'll find inside is world's away. Other such gems, some more upscale than others, include East Orlando's Fujiyama, Winter Park's Kiko and – for food truck aficionados – Sushi Seoul on the Roll. The tony Dr. Phillips neighborhood contributes here, as well, with well-known favorite Dragonfly Robata Grill (bring your boss, your date, your grandmother) and truly "hidden" gem Nagoya, an alley-ensconced hideaway you'll be happy to find.
Tucked into an easily missed hideaway, Nagoya is a long-standing gem of Restaurant Row (there is a second location in the East Orlando town of Winter Springs, fyi), This eatery sits alongside pricey heavy-hitters like Christini's with Japanese fare far lighter on both the belly and the wallet. Artful, too. Soups and other specialty items from the kitchen – read: not sushi – will not disappoint, either. For groups, beautiful boats such as the $50 Love Boat for two are treats for the eyes before they get near your palate but alas, the view won't last long. Nagoya is a small venue, but the intimacy pairs well with the fare and allows for quiet, enjoyable conversation. (4072488558)
Sushi & Seoul on the Roll
You'll find these mobile sushi artisans around town at various regular truck events, along with staple watering holes including the Thirsty Topher, Will's Pub, Redlight Redlight, and BART, along with events like Tasty Tuesdays in the Milk District, and they're like to redefine your parameters of items feasible for ordering off a truck. Plating (or perhaps "paper boating") is artful and the flavors – whether raw or ramen, pot stickers or tuna poke – are exceptional. Staffers are friendly and in bar settings will often deliver orders straight to the table; no need to loll around outside the truck while your beer gets warm. Bonus!
Dragonfly Robata Grill & Sushi
Sensual. Spiritual. Savory: three words that express the emotional enlightenment Dragonfly Robata Grill tries to evoke with its service and cuisine. Dragonfly's interpretation of Japanese pub culture is taken quite seriously, making for quite the delectable experience. In a soothing (but arguably trendy) lounge environment, Dragnonfly serves sushi, sashimi and robatayaki (open-fire grill) tapas-style. Sharing is encouraged, allowing diners to sample a number of different dishes. Avid sushi lovers with good timing can take advantage of the daily happy hour specials from 5 to 7 p.m. Create your own Box Sushi ($6) and choose from an array of seafood and optional extras. Tight service and a chic atmosphere make it a good choice whether you're dining for romance – or business. (3523713359)
Not far from the bustle of UCF, Fujiyama does brisk business. An impressive selection of traditional and specialty rolls whizz past full tables, prompting diners to question whether they should have ordered differently. No worries, though, with reasonable lunch and happy hour specials – they can just come back and try something new next time. Fujiyama is not just with frugal students. It's actually a cozy little find for families, couples, anyone, really – and with tender and generous cuts of fish (and plenty of other Japanese fare for the "cooked food only" set), you may find yourself wandering in more and more often. (407-677-6888)
An inarguable favorite among locals – in particular before or after a movie at the nearby AMC Altamonte Mall 18 – most would stress that Hana offers good value and myriad flavors in modest digs. It's small and simple, great for a date or lunch with friends, and enjoys a very enthusiastic following of foodies who come for the fresh fish and oft-quirky roll combinations. That said, don't count out the non-sushi fare if that's what you're craving. Hana is an equal opportunity Japanese restaurant. Lunch and dinner portions are generous to boot. We're always writing about those "hidden strip mall" gems in Florida. It's practically cliché. Hana is another that falls into the category and this distinction is well deserved. ((407) 830-9233)
A sleek and intimate interior belies a nondescript exterior on busy Colonial Drive near the Fashion Square Mall. It's an Orlando favorite for sushi and Asian fusion, with artful and generous presentation and a soothing, cosmopolitan vibe. Creative rolls – many of them tempura, watch the calories! – are a big draw but before you go completely roll-overboard (who doesn't?!) consider Kabooki's delicate, nigiri and sashimi selections, as well. Plump, fresh cuts of melt-in-your-mouth fish are served like culinary fine art that is, in fact, too lovely to gaze upon too long. Take a picture before you scarf. I mean, savor. ((407) 228-3839)
Though portions at this Japanese fusion venue are billed as "tapas-style," they are generous, which makes sharing not only fun, but more filling than often expected. While seafood, sashiimi and sushi lovers are certain to love Umi's super fresh and creatively prepared offerings, the restaurant's ample selection of Robata-grilled meats and vegetables allow fish-abstainers as much freedom of choice as any other diners to dig into the menu with foodie abandon. A large wine, beer and sake selection makes happy hour extra fun; staffers mix up some inspiring cocktails with the latter. The Happy Hour food menu makes for exceptional bargains, as well. Enjoy a cocktail and a bite out on the Park Avenue sidewalk and soak up the charm of Winter Park. (407-960-3993)
Native Orlandoans remember a time when Oviedo was nothing but native woodlands and sprawling farms – celery, horses, you name it. These days it's a growing suburb with many, many residents, all of whom need a place to get their chow on. As such, innovative eateries have been popping up 'round these parts in recent years. Sushi Pop is one of them. Okay, it's still perilously close to a sod farm, but that doesn't take one bit away from the cool anime or its innovative menu of offerings. Many are non-traditional, employing ingredients such as fried capers and rendered bacon. Asian fusion brings bits of Vietnam and Korea into the mix, as well, along with interesting seafood and meat entrees. Desserts are quite creative, as well, and the chic décor makes it feel a bit South Beachy out here in the 'burbs.
Tempura and ramen and rolls, oh my! Yes, Sushi Tomi has been doing all of these – not to mention a host of other Japanese favorites – up right for quite a few years now. Aficionados enjoy this restaurant's beautifully crafted sushi and sashimi offerings, perhaps as much for their artful, expert preparation as their tender slices of fresh fish. Like many of the best sushi joints in Orlando – or anywhere, for that matter – it's a small, unassuming place in yet another easy-to-miss shopping center location. Don't let the unremarkable exterior fool you. Quality cuisine and friendly staffers keep folks coming back. (407-352-8635)
Seito Sushi - Baldwin Park
If you're one who attaches importance to cooking competitions, take note: it was Seito Baldwin Park's top man, Chef Austin Boyd, who took home the belt at the first-ever Ramen Rumble here in Orlando. Okay, there was no actual belt, but if there were it might be made of eel skin. And the eel itself would be a succulent morsel on amid your artfully plated meal. Seito itself is a warm space well suited for date night or special occasions or a tasty lunch. The fare here is creative and fresh with comfortable, familiar faces rounding out the menu. Pork belly bao buns, massaman wings, curries and other delights will satisfy those less enthused by the melty-delicious sashimi or succulently seared tentacles. (407-248-8888)
About A.D. Thompson
A.D. Thompson has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and roughly 15 as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.
A roller coaster enthusiast, A.D. readily admits there is fun to be had amid the madness of the theme parks, but has found there is magic, as well, in the outer-lying reaches of Mickey’s long shadow. She is delighted to share with you the spoils of her adopted city.
Visit her colorful compendium at www.amydrewthompson.com.
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