Izumi Review: Passyunks Far East
Restaurateur Lynn Rinaldi thinks South Philly is ready for raw fish. And she would know; Rinaldi grew up just a block away from her sleek new sushi bar, Izumi, at the corner of Tasker and East Passyunk Avenue. Just a few years ago, this strip was a painfully retro relic where vacant storefronts were flanked by ancient cheese shops and unmarked cafes where Italian octogenarians drank espresso. Many of those places remain, but today, they share space with bars and coffee shops, a Mexican gastropub, a fitness center, and now, thanks to Rinaldi, a new sushi bar.
Rinaldi has been a big part of the transformation since 2004, when she opened Paradiso, her first restaurant on the Avenue. At that time, a Northern Italian menu (a departure from the ’hood’s red-gravy-rich Southern Italian tradition) seemed risky, but Rinaldi knew her neighbors were ready to branch out … a little. Since then, she’s been watching the moving trucks arrive with waves of 20-somethings and hip young families who’ve rehabbed old rowhomes into urban homesteads. She knew that these newcomers, like the gentrifiers who have gone before them in other parts of town, would want sushi. Like lattes, it’s their inalienable right.
Izumi chef (and Rinaldi fiancé) Corey Baver — who made the kitchen tour of Stephen Starr’s Asian eateries Pod, Morimoto and Buddakan — has crafted a menu of safe sushi basics, but his dexterity with Japanese flavors shines in some of the special maki rolls, like the Remy Roll, a supersize combo of eel, whitefish and crab topped with bacon-like bonito flakes and drizzled with sweet eel sauce and spicy aioli. The sashimi sampler, another winning dish, combines ribbons of fluke, tuna, salmon, squid and surf clam with trendy embellishments like shiso oil, smoked salt and tofu vinaigrette.
The menu’s hot dishes are, for the most part, just as well executed. A mountain of soy-glazed baby back ribs are tender from a three-hour braise. Such veggies as asparagus and carrots are enrobed in a light tempura batter and fried to a greaseless crisp. (The lobster tempura, on the other hand, is slightly overcooked and fishy.) And even though the menu is a departure from South Philly tradition, Baver has concocted a culinary nod to the Avenue’s history: a seared scallop nestled on a wasabi-infused crepe … with a little buffalo mozzarella.