TOYODA SUSHI IS THE HIDDEN GEM of Lake City, buried among such relics as the dusty American Eagles hobby shop and an Arthur Murray-type dance studio. If you've never heard of Toyoda, don't worry; it's existence is a well-kept secret, spread mostly by word of mouth.
Outside Toyoda there is often a line of people waiting to get inside the restaurant's modest single room, which is clean, airy, and unpretentious. The furnishings are simple and lovely, with rice paper lanterns and wooden tables. And while an air of artistry and delicacy permeates the room, this is a neighborhood restaurant, and you'll feel instantly at home. The sushi chefs greet you with genuine happiness, and soon the waitress is giving you a glass of cool, crisp plum wine ($3.25). It's the good stuff, and soon your neck feels disconnected from the rest of your body. A pleasing sensation.
Almost immediately, a complimentary dish of the house salad is placed before you, a rich combination of thick udon noodles, succulent crab, and crisp cucumber in a musty, peppery mayonnaise sauce. This is followed by steaming hot towels, and a savory bowl of Miso Soup ($2), the flavors balanced and subtle. Good sushi is art that you can eat, and the best show is at the bar, where you can watch the chefs -- both extraordinary artists -- place quail eggs atop tiny mountains of rice and seaweed, or pile plates with tentacles and squirt them with lemon. Or you can just sit and gaze at the beautiful, jewel-like portions of fish lined up behind glass, garnished by vases of luminous fresh flowers.
There is a unique array of salads, appetizers, and side dishes, including such wonders as Edamame (boiled and salted green soybeans, $3.95), and Geoduck Sauté ($4.95). Your dining companion is a picky eater. He will not touch your Spinach Sesame Salad ($3.95), a bright cluster of blanched spinach dressed with a mouthwatering sauce of sesame, sake, and sugar. This is a relief, because at Toyoda, you don't want to share. Still, you commandeer a taste of his croquettes ($3.95), two adorable dumplings accompanied by a sweet and pungent dipping sauce. The dumplings are stuffed with flavorful mashed potatoes, the outsides lightly crunchy while the insides melt in the mouth -- a prize-winning combination.
Soon, the first set of uramaki is placed front and center: Negi Hama Maki (yellowtail with green onions; six pieces, $5.25). The fish is unbelievably fresh and creamy, the onions sharp and biting. Along with the seaweed, sesame seeds, and wasabi, the flavors burst in your mouth like water after a long draught. For whole seconds, it is impossible to focus on anything except this heavenly taste. He who eschews raw fish looks at you with amusement and disbelief, as if you just claimed to have seen the Holy Virgin outlined on a piece of pickled ginger. You will feel capable of such a vision.
There's a full menu of non-sushi options at Toyoda, featuring entrées that cater to every taste. The Teriyaki Beef ($12.95) is breathtaking -- an achingly tender piece of New York steak, marinated, charbroiled, and cut into slender strips, served with a bowl of rice and graced with orange slices, which, if squeezed over everything, will provide a true taste sensation.
The Spider Maki ($8.95 for six pieces) is by far the most expensive sushi on the menu, and is worth every penny. The fried crab legs are a brief, crunchy sensation, a tasty prelude to the body of the roll, where the juicy crab meat is blended with the avocado and cucumber to create a taste that is luscious, succulent, and firm -- a superb mix of texture and flavor that is both fresh and exotic.
If the sushi chefs like you, they'll offer little treats: delicate concoctions of raw fish in quietly intense sauces. After dinner they'll sometimes push bowls of delicate green tea or mango ice cream ($1.95 ) on you, in a culinary game of chicken, to see who gives up first.
Toyoda is the place where you see other sushi chefs (from the sushi places you used to frequent) eating with pleasure. It's the place where Paul Newman told the owner that he'd never had better. It is an event that can and will happen over and over again, with the same amount of grace and wonder every time.