Pop Culture

Sushi Pop is a feast for the eyes, as well as the taste buds. Breaking the rules has never been so much fun.

Server Julia Owens’ attire is in keeping with Sushi Pop’s wildly vibrant ambience.

Nothing can prepare you for dinner at Sushi Pop. Not a visit to its Japanese animation-styled website, full of wide-eyed angels and avenging robots in yellows and pinks. Not the location, in a strip mall surrounded by subdivisions and the ghosts of ancient celery farms. Perhaps not even this review.

You’d expect hip and casual, and you’d be right. The exacting attention to detail, the sophistication of food and presentation, the rule-breaking flavor combinations—those you won’t anticipate. Not to mention waiting 20 minutes for a table on the outskirts of Oviedo. At 6 p.m., on a Thursday.

The room is larger than it first appears (and will be larger still with a coming expansion), filled with an open kitchen, white leather chairs and giant screens playing Japanese cartoons. The clientele is a remarkable mix: an Indian family at a corner table, young couples wearing cool glasses, a trio of gray-haired visitors gamely ordering a dish of sea urchin and quail egg.

Enthusiastically friendly servers participate in harajuku, theme days when they dress up as anime characters or Elvis or in 1980s rock-video styles (explaining the silver Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt drawn across one waiter’s face). One lovely young lady in bright pink talked me into a $14 Coedo Beniaka sweet potato beer, and I liked it.

Sushi rice is more than just grains; each itamai-san (sushi chef) has a special recipe, an exacting combination of rice, vinegar, sugar, salt, stickiness, cooking and cooling time, as individual as DNA. I recognized the signature rice at Sushi Pop—behind the bar, along with six other chefs, is the former itamai of Thornton Park’s Shari Sushi, Chau (“just Chau,” he once told me), who delighted me at Shari, and delights me now. Co-owner Chau combines exquisite ingredients with wicked humor. For what looks like a sunnyside-up egg on home fries, his “It’s No Yolk” ($14) tops tiny cubes of salmon in lime and olive oil with an encapsulated orb of coconut milk and mango puree that oozes onto the fish for a refreshing starter.

The Drama Queen roll ($11) takes spicy tuna roll and cools it with avocado and a slice of yellowtail, then returns the heat with tangy kimchi sauce. The Anaconda ($12) is a sensual delight—fresh green avocado, meaty eel, salty and sweet kabayaki sauce, the smoothness of crème fraiche, all surrounding the snap and crunch of tempura shrimp.

On the hot side of the kitchen is chef Michael Gleason, who honed his distinctive craft at Todd English’s bluezoo before embracing the Way of the Pop.

“Kitchen food,” cooked Japanese dishes, is sometimes delegated to a boring few items. Prepare to be un-bored. Gleason has fun at every turn, like reassembling pulled pork as a terrine and calling it pushed pork, or infusing ramen noodles with chicken soup. His Harvest Duck ($25) is Thanksgiving as invented in Tokyo, mouthwatering five-spice duck topping a well-seasoned loaf of green bean and stuffing “casserole,” with sweet potatoes and cranberry glaze. The Far East Flat Bread ($12) isn’t bread at all, but an okonomiyaki pancake crispy-fried in duck fat, topped with an earthy strata of oyster mushrooms, blue cheese and caramelized onion.

Bring an appetite and a sense of adventure. Arigato, Sushi Pop, we’ll see you again soon.

Finish the meal:
Dessert at Sushi Pop celebrates the joys of molecular gastronomy. Peanut Butter and Jelly Sorbet ($9) tops fruit jelly frozen at your table in liquid nitrogen with marshmallow foam and peanut butter powder.

Sushi Pop
310 W. Mitchell
Hammock Road, Oviedo
Entrees: $17-28; sushi $4-17

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