On Monday, June 5, Henry Moso will find out if he becomes the first Central Floridian to win the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: South award. He has already made history as the first local chef in the awards’ three-decade history to advance to the final voting round.
Moso, whose full surname is Phimmoso, is the owner and itamae of Kabooki Sushi, the Michelin-recommended restaurant with locations on East Colonial Drive and Restaurant Row. I had visited the original location, oddly situated across from Fashion Square Mall, several years ago and more recently for a takeout review during the pandemic. But I hadn’t been to Kabooki Sand Lake, which is actually on Turkey Lake Road in the Bay HIll Plaza, so I stopped in for dinner recently to gauge Moso’s chances of taking the Beard Award home.
Those chances are good, and not just because the organization’s ethics committee recently disqualified one of Moso’s fellow nominee. His food is creative, of unquestionable high quality and exactingly presented.
My companion and I chose to sit at the sushi bar (there is a separate liquor bar) so we could watch the various sushi chefs preparing the rolls, nigirizushi and other menu items.
We started with a couple of kitchen foods, the yuca fritters and tempura from the Hot Tastings section of the menu.
The fritters presented a chopstick challenge, just a tad too large to shove the whole thing in on one bite and too delicate to nibble off a piece without the rest crumbling away. But I managed, and I liked them quite a bit. The fritters, which also had spicy tuna and serrano peppers, yet were not the least bit spicy, sat in a swoosh of pureed avocado and were topped with pulpy sweet chili.
The tempura featured shrimp and assorted vegetables, including green pepper, sweet potato, onion and asparagus, coated in a delicate batter and deftly fried. The vegetables all had a pleasant crunch, and the light jackets of batter were delightfully nongreasy.
From the list of nigiri, I ordered the hamachi, which were startlingly small (my thumb is bigger) but nonetheless well prepared and presented. At six bucks each you wouldn’t want to try to make a full meal out of these.
Instead, I got the akami unagi from the list of makimono, or sushi rolls. It had spicy tuna (again, not very spicy) with eel, avocado and a bit of tempura to give it a pleasant crunch. The eight thick coins were well packed and delicious – and more filling than the hamachi.
The staff were all pleasant and comported themselves professionally. There were good signs of cross-service and staff helping each other out.
The vibe of the “Sand Lake” Kabooki is a bit more upscale than Colonial Drive. The restaurant occupies the space that had previously been Kokino, which sounded like it, too, would have been a sushi restaurant but actually specialized in assorted tartares. The lighting is low and moody and there is a pleasant thrum. One interesting thing behind the sushi counter is that instead of the stereotypical countertop glassed cooler, Kabooki keeps its fish in a standing refrigerator, the hefty hunks stacked on trays and hanging on hooks like meat in a butcher shop.
For various reasons, I think that Kabooki’s Michelin designation is more impressive than winning a Beard Award. But after so many years of trying to bring one home to a deserving local chef, it would be great to see Moso called to the stage in Chicago Monday.