Chef and co-owner Corey Baver with the lobster tempura, a satisfying rendition of the dish that features a generous helping of moist crustacean along with sweet potato, carrot, and shiitake mushroom.
Chef and co-owner Corey Baver with the lobster tempura, a satisfying rendition of the dish that features a generous helping of moist crustacean along with sweet potato, carrot, and shiitake mushroom. (Tony Fitts)

A Japanese restaurant on East Passyunk? The sushi menu is a great addition to the area, but the fusion fare is less successful.

Posted: March 15, 2009

Not that long ago, conventional wisdom would have envisioned the future of a revived East Passyunk Avenue entwined in a cocoon of spaghetti and red gravy. Even when Lynn Rinaldi first made a stylish comeback to her old neighborhood just four years ago with Paradiso, she simply added an elegant new sheen to a tried-and-true notion: that South Philly's heart and soul would always beat Italian.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Izumi, Rinaldi's latest - and most unexpectedly Japanese - venture with fiance-chef Corey Baver. This corner of deep South Philly has blossomed at last into a neighborhood with its own organically evolving character.

It's not that the pasta purveyors of Passyunk are in any peril of being pushed aside. But they've since been joined by a sudden influx of Mexicans and their taquerias, by the bike-messenger hipsters and their craft-beer gastropubs, by Wi-Fi coffee shops and a steady infusion of young, upwardly mobile home buyers.

"Gentrification," Baver says with Rinaldi lingering in the background. "Lynn hates that word."

After all, touting "gentrification" in your own neighborhood sounds like dissing the family roots. But there's no mistaking the fact that tiny Izumi, with its trendy Old City looks, Asian fusion menu, and sushi bar, is something novel for the neighborhood.

Raw fish, hallelujah, has finally broken the South Street border! (Conversely, I'm still waiting for a genuine Italian hoagie to finally make the upstream journey north.)

In terms of pure culinary adventurism, it's not like we're talking about molecular lettuce foam and acrobatics with meat glue. Sushi has simply become mainstream enough for South Philly. And South Philly's diners, meanwhile, are finally ready to enter the 21st century.

A recent survey or two of the dining room at Izumi might paint an unexpected portrait of who they are. At one end of the tall community table near the front window was a biracial couple on a date, their chopsticks dancing deftly across the vast and colorful palette of raw fish that filled the $50 sushi platter - a romantic sharing meal if there ever was one. At the other end of that table, three gay men gossiped in a haze of cologne through a line-up of crunchy maki rolls. A table full of stylish young Asians spent the evening more engrossed in the glow of their BlackBerrys than in actual conversation among themselves. Behind them, meanwhile, a table of beer wonks, loving the BYO scene, uncorked a steady flow of rare and exotic ales to pair with Izumi's food.

Actually, I was lucky enough to be at that beer table, where I was pleasantly surprised by how these big brews matched so well with Japanese. But more on that later.

My point is this: Izumi, with its trapezoidal walls, color-shifting glass-tile sushi bar, tiger-striped bamboo floor, and zenlike trickling wall fountain, is a stylish mirror of what this neighborhood has become: diverse, youthful, vibrant. And the feeling will only multiply when the warm weather comes, the cafe windows fold open, and Izumi more than doubles its 38 inside seats with tables on the sidewalk and beside the "singing fountain" across the street. ("Izumi" means "fountain" in Japanese.)

But I have doubts that Izumi will turn out to be a culinary destination for a wider audience, per se, as much as it is simply a great new addition to the neighborhood.

In terms of food trends, Izumi's menu is years behind the curve of Center City, where Baver spent many years in the Starr-osphere at Buddakan, Morimoto, Pod, and Alma de Cuba.

Tempura-fried rock shrimp in spicy sauce? Miso-marinated bass? Chicken teriyaki? Been there, ate that - a hundred times. Slices of kobe beef have been searing on hot rocks for half a decade in suburban locales from Voorhees to Newtown Square.

But Izumi does those fusion chestnuts well enough, adding a few light twists of its own. I especially liked the dashi-enriched congee rice porridge, studded with edamame and shiitake mushrooms, beneath the bass. The lobster tempura, a generous helping of moist crustacean sealed in leaping plumes of crisply fried white crust, was a satisfying rendition of the classic.

But the sushi kitchen is clearly Izumi's strength, with a focus on standards presented with attention to detail, quality, and value rather than anything especially innovative. And sushi chef Agus Lukito, an Indonesian-born chef trained at Teikoku and most recently at Mikado, does an excellent job.

His fish is superbly fresh, cut with precision, and wrapped around good rice - toothsomely firm and nicely seasoned with kombu-flavored vinegar. This is on full display in the platters, which, at 32 pieces for $50 (and half as many for $25), is a solid quality-value. It featured some less common additions - the sea-savory tang of horse mackerel, the tender snap of rouge-tipped surf clam, sweet white albacore, and a nearly translucent, delicate fluke - to the usual tuna-salmon-yellowtail mainstays.

Zuni has some other special fish worth seeking - buttery pink o-toro, a very creamy uni, lemony kanpachi, and lightly torched madai (sea bream). Either way, it's worth asking Lukito to whip out his sharkskin paddle for a wasabi upgrade: He's got a stash of fresh wasabi root behind his bar, and it lends a flavor boost the usual instant stuff just can't match.

For roll seekers, there is little need for much soy-dipped gilding. The spicy tuna roll delivers the welcom spark of an assertive Sriracha spice. The signature rolls also have their own distinct charms. A sweet and spicy layer of crab salad is mounded atop a core of tempura shrimp in the "Passyunk Avenue." The crisp of a tempera-fried wrapper and the light smoke of shaved bonito flakes give the creamy whitefish center of the "Remy" its intrigue.

My favorite composed raw-fish dishes, though, came from the riceless "small plate" menu. Salmon, lightly crusted in black pepper, fanned over an electric-green pool of jalapeno vinaigrette. Slices of buttery "super white tuna" (a.k.a. escolar) posed atop a zesty orange miso sauce zipped up with kimchee spice. The yellowtail tartare, meanwhile, creamier with mayo than most I've tasted, took on some memorable nuances with a lightly torched exterior and the crunch of red onions and tiny tomatoes.

Lukito wasn't flawless. For example, his chirashi was clumsily presented with underseasoned rice. But I had more nitpicks with the hot-food kitchen, which dabbled in some silly ideas that just tried too hard. I'm thinking of the jarringly sweet mango-tofu sauce with the scallop and strip steak "surf-and-turf," and that odd bit of Franco-Italo-Japanese fusion that is the wasabi-infused crepe topped with mozzarella and an herby cashew-crusted scallop. Not only was it awkward to eat, the whole contrivance was upstaged by the seemingly afterthought addition of some wonderfully chewy, flavorful shiitake caps (three days in the making!).

Still, those are small complaints from otherwise happy meals that finished with some decent desserts - a creamy panna cotta topped with yuzu marmalade; a plop of meringue-topped baked Alaska filled with coconut ice cream and chocolate cake that tasted far better than it looked; and a vividly creamy green-tea creme brulee.

We were shocked to discover back at our beer table that a dark Scotch winter ale from Belgium's Canaster was the perfect match for that herby creme brulee (especially with a minty shiso leaf chaser). But Baver, who co-owned the now-defunct Pretzel City Brewing Co. with his brother, is already wise to the affinity between beer and Japanese flavors.

He said he hopes that Izumi will soon be selling empty growler jugs that can be filled with craft beer at a discount from one of the neighboring gastrotaps now lining East Passyunk – including the good drafts at Paradiso.

If that's the unexpected future of this storied Avenue - pasta, pubs, poblanos, and sushi - no wonder I'm getting hungry.

Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House in Center City. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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