By Shannon J. Winslow-Claunch
Old Florida Fish House’s James Sargent has been in the sushi-making business since he was 15 years old.
In the early eighties, long before sushi became an American obsession, Sargent said that he would give sushi rolls away during his lunch break at Yamato in Pensacola, just to get passersby to try it. Fast-forward thirty years and sushi is, of course, wildly popular today. Chefs are pushing the limits of what each roll can hold, turning it inside out, using seaweed or rice paper, filling it with off-the-wall ingredients, sometimes excluding rice all together, frying, and even broiling the exotic ingredients into what can only be described as a culinary fusion of West colliding with East.
When what goes into — and on top of — a sushi roll seems to be a no-holds-barred affair, what actually defines the food?
The answer is the chefs themselves, who share a kinship of mutual respect and are classically trained (often under Japanese masters), practicing only the highest standards of preparation.
Let’s face it — the fish is raw — so it must be fresh, and for sushi joints along Scenic Highway 30A, the endless supply of Gulf seafood gives chefs a wide variety of fish to use as their canvas for creating these edible works of art. So, take a stroll with us now along the beach as we uncover the best chefs preparing the freshest and most uniquely edible art in South Walton.
The Bay: 24215 S. Hwy 331 in Santa Rosa Beach
The Bay is perched directly on Choctawhatchee Bay (check out the vista above!), at the southern foot of the Highway 331 bridge and is the culinary vision of Great Southern Cafe’s Chef Jim Shirley. With a gorgeous bar dedicated to sushi preparation, the restaurant’s signature sushi roll is dubbed John II. It’s made with yellowtail tuna, green onions and a spicy sauce, then capped with avocado and a spicy crunch tuna topping. The Bay’s world-class sushi chefs said that diners can always expect something creative and different when they venture out to dine at The Bay. Be sure to ask for the evening’s sushi specials for something really different.
Marie’s Bistro: 2260 W. Hwy 30A in Blue Mountain Beach
One of 30A’s local hangouts, Marie’s Bistro offers an eclectic and affordable menu ranging all the way from creative sushi to Mediterranean-influenced family recipes. Their signature sushi is the Christmas Roll, served year-round of course, with shrimp tempura, avocado, ahi tuna, spicy mayo and unigi sauce. Manager Tim Tran said that his customers keep coming back to Marie’s because they say Marie’s has the best sushi on 30A. Tran said that, by far, the most popular rolls at Marie’s are the tempura shrimp varieties.
The Gathering Spot at WaterColor: 34 Goldenrod Circle in Santa Rosa Beach
Only the freshest ahi tuna, Florida hopper shrimp, and fresh jumbo lump crab are used at the Gathering Place and Sushi Bar at WaterColor, where all of the sauces made in-house. Their Happy Hour specials on select sushi rolls usually include a chef’s specialty roll that’s not featured on the regular menu, so be sure to inquire. This casual dining space sushi to be served poolside, on the patio, in the comfy lounge area and even around fire pits. Sushi service starts at 5 p.m. and runs until 10 p.m. nightly. Their signature roll is the Ravil Special (named after their sushi chef). It includes eel, avocado, fried onions, lump crab meat rolled inside and topped with fresh ahi tuna, and is served with spicy sauce and eel sauce. Otherwise, the most popular rolls at the Gathering Spot are The Cowboy, Spicy Emerald, Crunchy Tuna and Firecracker Rolls.
Sushimoto: 11394 US Hwy 98 W. in Miramar Beach
Owner Kohmei Miyamoto (or Andy, as he’s known by all of his friends — which includes everyone that he meets) opened Sushimoto in 2009. Since then, his establishment has gained a superb reputation for their creative and diverse menu and friendly service. The Starburst Roll is one of their most popular, combining salmon, mango and crab salad wrapped in soy paper. The roll is then topped with more salmon and sprinkled with lemon zest.
Our personal favorite though is the Cookie Roll – a flash fried crab salad and cream cheese roll, topped with tangy marinated salmon and lemon slices, with eel sauce and green onions. This is the one that you’ll develop hardcore cravings for.
Andy finds inspiration for naming his creations in pop culture and top 40 music. For example, the wonderful So Fresh So Clean Roll was inspired by the popular Outkast song and is topped with tuna, mango, avocado, lime and cilantro. On the inside, this roll has cream cheese, crunchy shrimp, crab salad and cucumbers.
Basmati’s Asian Cuisine: 3295 W. Co Hwy 30A in Blue Mountain Beach
Opened in 1997, Basmati’s is 30A’s original tried-and-true pioneer sushi restaurant. Overlooking Draper Lake, the restaurant’s allure is punctuated by a candle-lit screen porch and epitomizes relaxation and sophistication apart from more heavily developed commercial areas. Owner Gary Hunt said that Basmati’s signature roll is the Florida Roll, which pays homage to the traditional California Roll, but with the addition of fresh gulf crab meat. Another one of Hunt’s top sellers is the Truffled Tuna Roll combining tuna, cracked black pepper and truffle oil. Basmati’s Asian Cuisine is open seven days a week for dinner from 5-10 p.m. and on weekdays for lunch, with an abbreviated sushi menu from 11-3 p.m.
Old Florida Fish House: 5235 E. Hwy 30A in Seagrove Beach
Sushi Chef James Sargent has been preparing artistic sushi at Old Florida Fish House since 2005, shortly after it opened. Sargent is passionate about his ingredients and his creations. Their most popular roll is the TNT, a crunchy tuna roll with avocado, chili paste and eel sauce. Sargent’s newest offerings echo the freshness of spring with ingredients like thinly sliced lemon, cilantro and Sriracha sauce accompanying only the freshest yellowfin tuna and salmon. He works hard to surprise locals — who keep coming back — with his newest creations and wild combos of ingredients that put the fresh fish and his imagination on center stage.
VKI Japanese Steak House & Sushi Bar: 4552 US Highway 98 W. in Santa Rosa Beach
VKI Japanese Steak House is known for its talented and entertaining chefs who prepare hibachi table side, but they also offer authentic Japanese sushi. One of their signature sushi servings is The Sex Roll with fresh king crab, avocado and cucumber inside, spicy tuna and fresh tuna on top, and served with spicy mayo, honey wasabi and sriracha. If that’s a tad too sexy for you, VKI’s Bomb Lobster Roll features mango, avocado and lobster salad, with masago on the inside. The roll is wrapped with soy paper and served with eel sauce and a honey wasabi sauce.