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Drive-through and take-out sets one sushi bar apart

Devotees of sushi know the best seats in the house at any given Japanese restaurant will be at the sushi bar, right in front of the sushi chef as he works through your order. Taken to the extreme, some premier Japanese restaurants in cities like Los Angeles offer seating only at the sushi bar -- all the better for the chef to watch your reaction to each morsel and adjust the subsequent courses.

The antithesis of all this reverent treatment is the drive-through window at Mikimoto, the Japanese restaurant in Gert Town. It has an attractive dining room and a six-seat sushi bar, but with drive-through service and a robust delivery business, Mikimoto customers are just as likely to eat its creations over their own kitchen tables, at neighborhood bars or even in their cars. There are people around town who have Mikimoto's phone number saved to their cell phone contacts list so they can be just a few pecks away from an order of crunchy rolls, steamed edamame and crab shumai after an extra-long night at work. Mikimoto's delivery drivers know the street addresses of most of the bars for a few miles around the restaurant and make regular deliveries until the restaurant starts shutting down around 10 p.m. or so.

I came of age with the understanding that sushi was a subtle and precise cuisine, crafted with artfulness by a chef with disciplined training and offered like a treasure to a sophisticated clientele. But today even regal red maguro can be found as a snack at the take-out counter of a Sav-A-Center, next to the chocolate muffins and chef salads.

Mikimoto stakes out ground somewhere between those poles. Where the food lacks brilliance, it at least has convenience on its side. And when the food is really good, it can make you wonder why you ever paid $16 for a chain-store pizza and chicken wings just because it was late, you were hungry and someone would deliver it.

Salads from the sushi bar are a great way to start a meal, especially the spicy tuna salad. There is a good amount of raw tuna for $6.50, cut into bite-sized chunks with half-moon slices of cucumber and a sauce that is like a Korean kimchee without the cabbage -- rusty red, dripping wet and piercingly spicy. The one just called "seafood salad" is similar but has a greater variety of seafood -- tuna, salmon, squid, red snapper, crabstick -- all chopped into much smaller bits and not as satisfying. A cucumber salad is an excuse to eat at least an entire cucumber cut into thin slices with not much other than a light soy dressing and sesame seeds.

The sushi menu is straightforward, and most people order basics like dynamite rolls, rock and rolls, Philadelphia rolls, spicy tuna rolls and rainbow rolls. The house special rolls can be as big as modest burritos, but they're not the best eating on the menu. In the South Carrollton roll, for instance, the main fish ingredient is tuna tataki but the lightly seared surface that is tataki's delicious hallmark is blunted by tying it together with soft avocado inside the rice. The wholly roll has a sashimi assortment plate worth of raw fish inside a tube of rice, but the tuna, salmon, yellowtail, crab, avocado and asparagus all tend to run together.

For half the price, the Metairie roll is a better bet, with straight-up raw tuna, avocado and crab in sushi rice with a sweet glaze of barbecue sauce. Also good is the busy roll, with spicy tuna and crab wrapped inside thinly sliced, almost translucent cucumber. This is a cool, spicy, crunchy, soft bite all in one. The "bayou roll" listed on most sushi menus involves spicy crawfish tails. Not so at Mikimoto, where that version is simply called the crawfish roll. Mikimoto's bayou roll is a portion of crunchy seaweed salad and shredded cucumber wrapped inside rice and layered with alternating stripes of tuna tataki and white fish. It is all thoroughly doused with ponzu sauce for a pickling tartness that is cut by hot dots of chile sauce.

Aside from the appetizers and sushi, most of the menu is made up of the typical lunch and dinner combination meals -- for example, miso soup plus teriyaki, katsu-style chicken cutlets, tempura or tofu. The spicy beef is the best of these and comes with a truly fiery sauce that, like a full-bodied curry, makes even the accompanying raw shreds of celery and carrots delicious.

The location may not seem ideal -- right on a thumpingly loud stretch of South Carrollton Avenue between South Claiborne Avenue and the interstate -- but it could hardly be better placed for the benefit of its delivery business. Mikimoto's drivers fan out along the several nearby intersections of major streets to addresses all over town.

Take-out is Mikimoto's sweet spot, but the restaurant itself is a nice place to eat. Not much to look at from the outside, the small, 12-table interior is well designed with stylish lighting, attractive Asian-style furniture and a healthy sense of bustle. The place had to be completely rebuilt after the levee failure and looks better than ever.

Mikimoto may not be the place you go on a first date, but it's the place you go with your sweetheart at the tail end of a good weekend. Better yet, it's the place you call for a delivery of fried tofu, beef negi maki and a few smoked salmon rolls before you cozy up with a movie at home.

click to enlarge Sushi lovers can get their order to go at Mikimoto's pick-up - window - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Sushi lovers can get their order to go at Mikimoto's pick-up window
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