WORDS: Kara Chalmers
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
As usual, JPAN Sushi & Grill was bustling on a recent weekend night. Couples on dates, groups of friends, and families of all sizes dined and drank on the outdoor patios, at the sushi bar inside, and at tables and booths in JPAN’s dimly lit, stylish interior.
I think I can safely call myself a JPAN regular. The place is one of few restaurants in the University Park area that isn’t a large national chain. I love the food, relaxing ambiance, and the warm and attentive service equally. I come here for nights out with girlfriends and for date nights with my husband. And because my daughters, ages 11 and 8, love the place too, we bring them here as a special treat.
It’s not that JPAN is especially expensive for families. In fact, they offer one of the best kids’ meal deals I’ve ever heard of. But my girls recently discovered they love sushi, and they can consume a surprising amount of it. So, the kids’ meals here have become a thing of the past for us.
In addition, my husband and I usually take advantage of JPAN’s extensive drink selection, which includes various types of sake, inventive craft cocktails (like the signature JPAN Old Fashioned and the Butterfly Martini) and a sizable beer and wine list.
My family rarely orders dessert when we eat out, but JPAN’s Mochi Rice Cake Ice Cream is our exception. This small round confection is a sweet, soft dumpling made of pounded Japanese sticky rice that’s filled with ice cream. However, we don’t agree on what flavors are best, so we order all three — vanilla, strawberry and green tea. While JPAN’s other dessert options are tempting, we can’t resist the mochi, every time.
So, while we end up spending a little more at JPAN than we do at other typically kid-friendly restaurants, for me the experience, fare, and super convenient location (near I-75 and University Parkway) are totally worth any extra dollars. Also, don’t let the modern and chic Japan-influenced interior design fool you into thinking this place is just for grown-ups. Kids are more than welcome, said Clarice Dokko, who co-owns JPAN with her husband Daniel, the head chef.
“We have lots of big families,” Clarice said. “No one feels uncomfortable. We try to make the environment relaxing for everyone.”
A Dash of Korea, a Pinch of Brazil
The Dokkos are both Korean and, as kids, they ate traditional Korean meals prepared by their mothers and grandmothers. However, they were both born in, and grew up in, Sao Paulo, Brazil. So, from a young age, they were also exposed to the flavors and ingredients of Brazilian cuisine.
When Daniel was 19, he moved to the United States and worked first as a busboy and dishwasher at a Japanese restaurant in Orlando. As he worked his way up over the years, as a server, then as the manager, he fell in love with the industry and became an accomplished Japanese chef. Why Japanese? Because he loves it. As does his wife, and as do his children Dario, 11, and Grace, 3.
“It’s our favorite, I could eat it every day,” Clarice said.
In 2008, when he was 26, Daniel opened his first restaurant in Sarasota. It was a small sushi place with four employees. It has since doubled in size. Its location – at 3800 S. Tamiami Trail, in the Shops at Siesta Row – is where Clarice, one of the managers, spends most of her time. Clarice is also responsible for JPAN’s social media and event scheduling. In addition, she helps come up with new menu items.
In the summer of 2016, under pressure from loyal customers who made the trek to Sarasota from their homes in Bradenton and Lakewood Ranch, the Dokkos opened the University Park location, at 229 N. Cattlemen Rd., which is a five-minute walk from the Mall at University Town Center.
The Dokkos have used their Korean heritage, Brazilian hometown, and Japanese cuisine expertise to create a formula for an inventive and broad menu, filled with great-tasting, authentic, and creative dishes.
It’s a large menu, with sections for the classics: sashimi and sushi rolls – traditional, low-carb (without rice), vegetarian, and 34 specialty rolls. Among the most popular rolls is the Volcano Roll – tuna, cream cheese and asparagus, topped with avocado, baked crab, and shrimp salad. There’s also the Origami Roll, which is shrimp tempura, crab salad and avocado, topped with spicy tuna, and wrapped in rice paper. The Lobster Roll – snow crab, cucumber, and conch, topped with avocado and Maine lobster — is also a customer favorite, Clarice said.
While I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater, JPAN is one place where it’s difficult for me to stray from my favorites. I almost always order the Spicy Tuna Roll (I swear it’s the best I’ve ever had) and the Sweet Potato Roll, one of JPAN’s vegetarian options. This normally comes with tempura-battered sweet potato paired with cream cheese, but I order mine with steamed sweet potato, not battered. It’s delicious. I also always get the Spicy Tuna Blocks appetizer, which has avocado, togarashi pepper and hot sesame oil. Our kids like both the pork and shrimp dumplings appetizers.
Not surprisingly, there are Korean offerings on the menu, including the popular JPAN Beef, an entree featuring thinly sliced steak sautéed in a Korean soy garlic sauce. There is also a Korean Short Ribs appetizer as well as Spicy Korean Tacos, which feature shaved pork shoulder in a spicy Korean sauce.
The menu offers plenty of options without raw fish, including all of the entrees. There’s the lightly breaded and fried Chicken Katsu, Sizzling Teriyaki, JPAN Beef, Volcano Chicken (crispy chicken served with a tangy, spicy sauce), steamed Sea Bass, and the Seafood Lover, which is Chinese-style lobster, scallops, and shrimp in a ginger and scallion sauce. All entrees are served with miso soup, house salad, vegetables, and rice.
“We want to bring authentic Japanese food, but also new creations,” Clarice said of their mission. “We always have new things on the menu – but we keep the artistry of sushi.”
Their roots are important, but so is creativity, she said. “We are always trying to have the best traditional sushi, but something new too.”
How to Get a Good Deal at JPAN
As mentioned above, JPAN knows how to do a kids’ meal right. For $8 to $10, depending on the protein, kids 12 and under get one entree (which is not skimpy) – Chicken Teriyaki, Shrimp Teriyaki, Chicken Tempura, Shrimp Tempura, JPAN Beef, or Chicken Yaki Udon – served with white rice, vegetables, dumplings, fruit, and a special Japanese soda in a glass bottle sealed with a marble – a novelty that my kids love. As an alternative to the soda, there’s orange juice.
Weekday lunch, as well as the daily happy hour, offers affordable ways to give JPAN a try. The lunch special is two rolls for $10 – or three rolls for $13. While not every roll on the full menu is offered, there’s a good selection. Also, at lunch, you can get a bento box – complete with a Spring Roll, Cali Roll, Shrimp Dumplings, and a choice of soup or salad – plus any of the hot entrees listed above, plus a few additional ones, for about $12.
During Happy Hour, every day from 5pm to 6:30pm, you can choose from a selection of small plates, rolls, and drinks ranging from $3 to $6 each.