I have many fond memories of the month I spent in Japan covering the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. Bullet trains, heated toilet seats and my first glimpse of high-definition TVs were all nice, as was an elegant opening ceremony that concluded with a moving rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Ode to Joy.
Perhaps my fondest memory is of the small and unassuming neighborhood restaurant just down the block from the media village. It was open late. It served sushi, and it also had funky and exotic dishes such as uni (sea urchin) and natto, fermented soy beans that stunk to high heaven and were coated in a sticky and scary paste that pulled apart into long, wispy strands that looked as if they had been spun by a spider. And the restaurant had zaru soba, Nagano’s regional specialty, chilled buckwheat noodles served with finely chopped scallions and a dark dipping sauce of soy, dashi and rice wine. No matter which frigid mountain or frozen sheet of ice I had spent the day shivering upon, my soul would warm when I’d sip some hot sake and soup and then send all manner of slithery sea creatures and noodles down my gullet. I even tried the natto, much to the delight of the chef and locals, and they laughed when they saw my look of horror as I swallowed it.
The first time I stepped into Marumi Sushi in Plantation, and again during two recent visits, I had Nagano flashbacks. Marumi is a small and unassuming neighborhood restaurant. It is open late, until 1:30 a.m. nightly. It serves sushi, and it also has dishes such as uni, which does not seem as funky or exotic as it did 20 years ago, and natto, which still does. Marumi also offers zaru soba noodles ($8), a menu item rarely seen in the South Florida landscape of hybrid Japanese-Thai sushi restaurants. The chilled, brown noodles were tasty and proper, served on a traditional bamboo draining mat known as a zaru, topped with fine strips of dried seaweed (nori) and accompanied by chopped scallions and that sweet, salty and umami dipping sauce. The natto ($6.50 over rice, topped with a raw quail egg and salmon roe) featured fermented bacterial paste that pulled apart in hairlike strands, but the beans were not as foul or nasty as I recalled. This time, with some help from my tablemates, I managed to eat the whole bowl.
“It is an acquired flavor,” Marumi co-owner and sushi chef Tetsu Hayakawa says.
Thankfully, much of Marumi’s menu is easy to love on first bite. The sushi and sashimi were OK, much better on a weeknight when the fish seemed fresher than on a Sunday night. Some cuts were outstanding, particularly Japanese fatty tuna (known as chutoro, $15 for four slices) and Japanese yellowtail (part of a $28 mixed sashimi platter), flown in weekly. But the real stars of the show were Japanese izakaya, small and large plates meant for sharing, with an array of grilled and chilled meats, seafood and vegetables. A small and bracing dish of raw, spicy minced octopus wasabi ($5) practically quivered with freshness. Crispy bok choy ($6.50) ate like potato chips. Lightly fried cubes of agedashi tofu ($6) were velvety and silken. A spicy grilled lamb steak ($12) was mellowed with shredded cabbage and kewpie mayonnaise. A pot of tender manila clams ($13.50) went down easily with a delicate broth of dashi and sake.
Marumi, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, strives to be authentic. Hayakawa says the restaurant does not sell much natto, but those customers who like it appreciate its availability, along with items such as fried sardines and sauteed chicken liver with chives. The restaurant also offers more crowd-pleasing items such as fried pork katsu, grilled yakitori beef, and many types of noodles, including yakitori, udon, ramen and warm soba. The restaurant offers exceptional value, with most dishes costing from $4 to $20. Deluxe sushi and sashimi platters and whole fish dishes cost more.
The restaurant is not fancy, and after a decade it feels a bit worn, but in the comfortable and comforting way of a favorite sweater. Hayakawa mans the sushi bar, sipping a beer during lulls as the night goes on, and chef-owner Teruhiko Iwasaki helms the busy kitchen. They are both from Kanagawa Prefecture, a coastal region south of Tokyo, and they met working at Japanese restaurants in South Florida. Hayakawa came to the United States in 1993 and spent time at Tokyo Sushi on 17th Street Causeway in Fort Lauderdale. They opened Marumi in October 2007.
“We didn’t have much money, so we didn’t have much choice [about the location],” Hayakawa says in a followup interview.
The restaurant is in a Sunrise Boulevard strip mall just west of University Drive, and it has gained a devoted following of locals and a late-night crowd that includes chefs and restaurant workers.
I have enjoyed trendier and more expensive izakaya over the past year at some of Broward’s tony beach resorts, but Marumi is a different kind of restaurant. It is honest, reasonable and unpretentious, the type of place found in Nagano, Tokyo or Central Broward where working people come to unwind and eat after a long day. It is wedged between a nail salon and dental office. The compact, 50-seat dining room has eight seats along the sushi bar, a few booths along the walls, and tables in the middle. Two muted televisions beam newscasts and sports events. The speaker system plays a local adult FM station (I could have done without Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”). A clipboard with a signup sheet hangs near the entrance, and waits are common during peak hours. To ease the wait, chairs are set up along the front breezeway, beneath harsh fluorescent lights. A banner hangs overhead congratulating Iwasaki’s daughter, Koine, on her success on the most recent season of “So You Think You Can Dance” (she finished second).
Service was friendly and sometimes harried. The beer and sake selection is fine, with premium bottles of cold sake available and numerous Japanese beers in bottles and draft. Some dishes had flaws. Grilled calamari was artfully sliced and arranged, but chewy. Grilled slices of pork belly lacked flavor, partly because the kitchen uses gas burners and not charcoal for meats.
We ordered a mixed sashimi platter ($28) that was hit and miss, with the yellowtail pieces dull and a clam rubbery and lifeless. But the salmon was good and the scallops were exceptional.
A menu highlight is fresh whole fish ($1.50 an ounce, branzino on the nights of my recent meals), which can be ordered “two way” ($10 extra) or “three way” ($15 extra), meaning it is featured in two or three successive courses. In our case, we ordered a 30-ounce branzino two way ($55). The first course was an aromatic soup with hunks of fish and vegetables in a dashi broth perfumed with chrysanthemum leaves that was outstanding. The second course was a grilled fish platter that looked pretty — with mushrooms, Japanese eggplant and shishito peppers — but featured a miso sauce that was a bit too sweet and cloying.
A better sweetness came for dessert, a plate called Sweet Potato Girl ($6). It featured a creamy, puddinglike layer of white mashed Japanese sweet potato topped by a scoop of plain vanilla ice cream. The dish, like the restaurant, was simple, delectable, humble and workmanlike. Marumi exhibits much of what I admired about Japan.
8271 W. Sunrise Blvd., Plantation
954-318-4455 or MarumiSushi.net
Cost: Moderate. Small plates, soups, noodles, grilled items, sushi and sushi rolls cost $4 to $16. Sashimi platters and specialty fish dishes $18 to $55.
Hours: 5:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. nightly
Reservations: Not accepted.
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer, wine and sake
Noise level: Conversational
Wheelchair access: Ground level
Parking: Free lot