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Samurai Blue in Ybor

This past Friday night, before catching Alonzo Bodden at The Improv comedy club, we headed upstairs for dinner at Samurai Blue. The original Samurai Blue is located in the Centro Ybor entertainment complex in Ybor. A new location has opened in Westchase on Racetrack Rd.

We had dined once before at Samurai Blue about two years ago and had an okay meal. The kind of experience where you might try the place again if you're in the area, but you aren't in a rush to go back. After last week seeing Times restaurant critic Chris Sherman name Samurai Blue one of his five "best sushi" restaurants, we decided it was time to give the place another try.

Located inside the historic Centro Espanol building, the atmosphere of the Ybor location is hard to beat with its old-meets-new mix, which includes lots of exposed brick and towering 30-foot ceiling. On this visit, we decided to sit up at the sushi bar to be closer to the action. We started with a bottle of a refreshing cold sake and a grilled beef roll appetizer. The beef could have been more flavorful, but was solid. Little did we realize this dish would set the pace for the rest of the meal.

For our main course, I ordered three different kinds of sushi rolls and Traci went with the mango chicken. This large dish came with several chicken breasts served over white rice topped with diced fresh mango. I sampled the chicken, and it was juicy but not particuarly flavorful. While my sushi was fresh, it certainly wasn't among the best sushi I've ever had. Maybe this was just bad luck on my part in the selections I made, but out of three sushi rolls, I'd expect one to be a knock-out.

Sushi joints aren't cheap, and when you add just average-tasting sushi, and a fast, but unfriendly server to the mix, the net result is a fairly mediocre experience. Unfortunately, I felt like we did after the first time we visited Samurai Blue - in no rush to go back. The only other local sushi joint I've tried is Cafe Japon in International Plaza and I'm in no rush to revisit it either.

Note that Samurai Blue did average on its last health inspection report with 5 critical violations.

I'm not a big sushi person, but I would like to find one or two really good local sushi places. In my experience, some of the best sushi comes from small litle places where the sushi bar doesn't feel like a giant assembly line. Fellow Sticksian, Jason, has recommended I give a new restaurant called Sakana on south Gandy near MacDill a try. So what's your favorite local sushi joint and why?

Bottom-line: Samurai Blue's sushi didn't knock my socks off, but the restaurant's Ybor location, with its towering ceiling and old-meets-new vibe, still makes it a unique destination.


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  1. Have to agree on your opinion. Have tried the place a few times. Mostly with co-workers who insist on going back. As a sushi lover, have almost always been dissappointed by the quality. I do have to say that their Sashimi Bento box (believe it's only a lunch option) is a good deal at about $10. Otherwise, I always have the feeling I've paid way too much for pedestrian quality and mostly indifferent service. Not too mention the fact that it's always freezing inside the place. That doesn't add to the overall dining comfort level.

    Have found that Sushi Alive (North Dale Mabry) is a nice addition to the local market. Although also an expensive proposition.

    1 Reply
    1. re: srcusa

      The bento box does sound like a good deal. I didn't know they were open for lunch. I think what saves the place and draws people in is that location because if you strip that away the food doesn't seem to stand up. Thanks for the Sushi Alive idea.


    2. I'm not sure they're doing all that well with the lunch biz either, as they seem to be hit or miss on their hours and typically fairly empty at lunch time. I would think they survive on the club and movie biz.

      What I do miss as a lunch option in Ybor is the Big City Tavern. They had a killer oriental chicken salad, that they don't offer on the diner menu.

      1. I have to say my fav is Yokos on MacDill, just south of Bay to Bay Blvd in south tampa. its a once a week stop off for me to get my sushi fix..very fresh rolls, small quaint atmosphere, these guys know thre sushi, and do the best job..in addition, SOHO Sushi on Howard Ave also gets my recommendation(same owner as Yoko's)...try it, and let em know what you think.

        1. I too have been very disappointed at Samarai Sushi. They have great atmosphere and I like their bar. But that's not enough for this sushi lover. My favorite, which sounds like it's your style, is called Water. They offer sushi with rice paper instead of seaweed on the outside and have some really great sauces. It's in Hyde Park on Howard Avenue next to Ciccio and Tony's (it actually is owned by them and is connected to their restaurant). Another one that i like is Koba on MacDill just north of Bay to Bay. Another intimate little place. And I like Yokos but they seem to run a little low on imagination. sushi can be a very boring experience if the chefs aren't imaginative.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Tandoori Girl

            FYI - Koba's has now moved to Palm Harbor, off of Tampa Road

          2. I too heard the place on Gandy was good but I have't hit it yet...
            My best sushi discovery recently was Ichiban on Fowler in the big shopping center at
            Bruce B. Downs...

            Super delicious and creative rolls, killer Sashimi platter-boat... Super friendly crew...
            Every bite was a knock out...

            1. I've never tried Big City Tavern for lunch, but more often then not we've been happy with it for dinner. I've only lived in tampa for a year and a half, but have gotten the feeling from several folks that a few years ago Big City wasn't very good, but they've changed chefs and the menu up since then. Love the room's high ceilings, big old looking bar etc too.

              Thanks to everyone for the sushi place suggestions, I've got some work to do :) What about Sushi Rock and/or Pacific Wave in St. Pete? Thanks-


              1. It's been a while (8 months) but Toki Japanese in Carrollwood has always been good. As best as I can tell, the ownership is Japanese and I take that as a good sign. I usually order the spider roll which has soft shell crab. That has always been my litmus test for freshness. Am I way off on that one? I dunno.

                They are located a couple of blocks south of Ehrlich on N. Dale Mabry on the right hand side going northbound. Same shopping center as the Kobe steakhouse and Houlihan's. They are a little bit south of the wine shop in that plaza.

                Btw, a classmate of mine likes Sushi Alive, which was mentioned elsewhere in this thread. I have not been there myself so I can't give a personal opinion.


                1. Whatever you do, stay far away from Rice & Company (Asian fusion in Citrus Park mall). What a major dissappointment. I had high hopes when it opened, but they quickly dumbed down the menu and the sushi has been godawful each and every time my 10 year old drags me in there.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: srcusa

                    Agreed. My sis and I went to Rice and Company at Citrus Park Mall probably a couple of years ago and yes, the sushi was horrible. I had ordered the spicy tuna roll and what we got did not even look like tuna. Instead of a nice red flesh the tuna had kind of an orange-y, chopped up appearance. Ugh. Plus the rolls were very warm like they did not keep their ingredients cold enough.

                    1. re: ramblinwrek92

                      If they're freshly made, the sushi rolls should be warm. If you go to a restaurant and getting cold sushi rolls, they were probably sitting around. Buffet sushi joints have to keep the sushi cold for health reasons; you don't want raw fish sitting around long at room temp.


                      1. re: UptownKevin

                        Well, I don't expect the sushi rolls to be refrigerator case cold like the ones at Publix BUT at the time we went to Rice and Company the place was very busy and it took a while for our sushi order to come out. I was not expecting the spicy tuna roll to be chilled but temperature wise the roll just was "off".

                        If I have to tradeoff between a trip to the ER with IV fluids and antibiotics being dripped into my arm due to foodborne illness vs. not so tasty but safe food then I choose the latter.

                        1. re: ramblinwrek92

                          Another option: you could eat cooked food.

                  2. I am no sushi expert. In fact, Ive only tried it a few times. Reading some of these reviews makes me question whether I should ever eat it again. A lousy, poorly cooked meal is one thing; a Lousy warm RAW meal is a whole nother animal.

                    Most recently I had a Nagiri? sushi and Pad Thai lunch at Ban Thai in Clearwataer/Safety Harbor. I must say, that the sushi was just delicious and there was no suggestion that everything was not really fresh and properly prepared. This novice was impressed. Next, I would like to try a straight, top notch sushi restaurant to see how it compares.

                    1. I found Samurai Blue to be perfectly respectable, but it's not my favorite sushi in the area. The best sushi experience I've had in the area is at Tsunami in the Brandon -- excellent, fresh sushi, innovative rolls (gotta try the Hawaiian Roll), all beautifully presented. Too bad it's such a long drive for us. Our regular sushi haunt is Kiku on Clearwater Beach (also featured on Chris Sherman's list).

                      1. Just as a quick follow-up we tried Sushi Rock Grill in St. Pete this past weekend for dinner one night. The experience was clearly a cut above what we got at Samurai Blue in Ybor.

                        Sushi Rock was smaller than I expected, seems to have a loyal base of customers. We sat up at the sushi bar. Server was better than who we had at Samurai Blue. He did forget our appetizer, but then apologized and offered to comp it when we mentioned it. Tried two different types of sushi rolls and thought they were good, also had the miso and egg rolls as an app. My wife had their chicken fried rice- good, not great.

                        Thanks again for the different sushi ideas-


                        1. Has anyone been to Sakana Sushi Restaurant? The trib has a nice review of it that went up today on the website. It sounds yummy. I guess the guy behind it was one of the ones from Sushi on 7th, which predated Samurai Blue and I used to love to go to about 8 or 9 years ago.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: rhnault

                            I went to Sakana at the end of December and enjoyed it. I don't have a good enough memory about it to write an eloquent review though.

                            My favorite is still Matoi on Dale Mabry near I275. I beieve it was the first place I had sushi, and I've been going there ever since. It's never too loud or too crowded and the sushi is always fresh. My mother even liked it- and she usually hates anything "ethnic."

                          2. My boyfriend took me to Samurai Blue for a "change of scenery" as we almost ALWAYS go to Yokos on MacDill a few weeks ago. With the exception of the roll that had the strawberry and eel sauce on it, nothing blew me away, and some of their stuff was just rather bleh. I'll take Yokos any day of the week, but WOULD go back for more of that strawberry roll...it was to die for!

                            1. Toki is still really good. The sushi is always fresh and the prices are fair. The only thing that I have had and not liked was the baby octopus sashimi. Visually it was pretty nasty looking and the taste left much to be desired. I can and will eat just about anything no matter how it looks. But this looked and tasted horrible. That being said, I enjoy the sashimi and the rolls are good too. I also have to add I have not tried any other sushi joints in Tampa.
                              Rice and Co. is just awful. Not only the sushi, but everything else too. I will never go back.

                              1. I had horrible experience at Samurai Blue,Cafe Japon and Rice & co.
                                Does anyone tried sushi at "TC Choy's Asian Bistro " on South Howard Ave in Tampa ?
                                Sushi chef original from Japan and he had over 25 years experience "REAL" Japanese sushi and Japanese food.
                                Actually, TC Choy's has famous DIM SUM and Chinese food.
                                However, insider would know that place has EXCELLENT
                                Traditonal Japanese sushi you ever seen in this area. Also, Chef introduce you to All Japanese culture and history.
                                All other place served AMERICAN Cream cheese sushi.
                                I understand many eater loves American sushi but
                                you may find out what is different between American sushi and
                                Japanese traditional sushi. And I guarantee you may impressed his artistic sense and taste. I think much better than Nobu or Masa ....

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: BradPatt

                                  Yes, TC Choy is the best sushi place we've found in Tampa/St Pete area (of course, we haven't tried them all -- too many). Like others, we've found a correlation between quality and Japanese chefs. TCC's chef is Tom Yamaguchi and you can call/talk to him to get something really special. Good Japanese cuisine is never cheap, but at TCC you can get your simple "dinner after work" or really special stuff that you would pay a lot more for in Japan, such as excellent uni and huge oysters; try dorayaki for desert. We should know because we are Chinese but lived in Japan for over 10 yrs. Their Dim Sum is comparable to what you get in China Towns in San Fran or NYC, and their Chinese dishes are excellent (open kitchen), and decore is great (Chinese style). If TCC is too far for you, our second choice is JOTO in Clearwater, Japanese chefs; excellent tempura, sukiyaki. Blue Samurai at Race track/Nine Eagles is a notch down (no Japanese chef), but passable; they can't make decent tempura. For sushi, always sit at sushi bar; otherwise, they may not give you their best. Where are Nobu and Masa?

                                2. Most of the links are for Tampa- but i really enjoy a small place in Palm Harbor called Sushi Ren. If you take Hillsborough across to Pinellas(it turns into Tampa rd)- you will go under McMullen Booth and then its about 1/2 mile on the Left (turn just before a stop light and circle k gas station) Its in a strip plaza and the sign say Japenese Restaraunt. The food is super good, classic but innovative. The rainbow roll and spicy tuna roll are my faves. I'll give everyone the same advice- make sure you have socks on with no holes!

                                  1. Has anyone tried Sushi Yaki on 7th?

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: Tampa Chrissie

                                      Visited this restaurant for the second and LAST time last night. First visit was right after they opened. Bartender made my wife's dirty martini on the rocks in a highball glass with a lime! Sent it back and it came in the correct glass but with no olive juice and made with rum even though she asked for a Stoli martini!! Third time we had to instruct the waitress how to make it. Service was slow and sashimi was thinly cut. Decided to give it another try last night and the service was very slow. They only had 5 tables, two waitresses, one sushi chef and one bartender. Our first sashimi dish was prepared and placed on the counter near us. Chef tells our waitress the dish is ready (she was in the kitchen). We wait 2-3 minutes and end up getting it ourselves as the chef watches without apologizing. Waitress comes out and passes by our table, then asks the chef where the order is??? Our second dish we asked for spicy tuna handrolls and instead received spicy tuna sushi rolls. We accepted them as we did not want to wait another 20 minutes to have them prepared. You would think that maybe they would charge us for tuna handrolls, but instead we are charged $14 for the sushi rolls. Also, they did not have a host at the door and many people would walk in and stand waiting until they figured it out (a few times a host did show). On the positive, the volcano rolls were awesome and the South Beach atmosphere (decor, lighting and house music) was cool. However, due to the poor service we will not be back and will stick with Samurai Blue and Ichiban.

                                      1. re: sjbill

                                        I wasnt too haoppy with Samaria Blue last visit a few weeks ago, very over priced, rolls seemed rushed. It was a usual spot, but the last few times, the sushi and rolls have not been as appetizing, seems like your paying extra for the unique architecture, and looking at the pretty people, but when i eat sushi, i want the best...I will stick with Yoko's and SOHO sushi(same owners).

                                    2. Also, there is a great Sushi place tucked back in a shopping center behind TGI Fridays on Hillsborough near Dale Mabry. Very traditional.

                                      1. It makes no sense to me to go to the second best sushi place. The best sushi I've found in this area is over in tarponsprings on US19. It's just south of tarpon ave. I'd tell you the name but I don't know it. It's a stand alone resturant that you should have no problems finding. It's the only Japanees styled building in 100 miles. Get the bubba roll, crab rangoon, super crunch (desert), and of course tuna and salmon pieces.

                                        1. Has anyone been to Ginza Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar in Land O' Lakes?

                                          Also, any more reviews on Ichiban? That place has been there forever.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: rikkikm

                                            Ginza is very good with fair prices. Only thing that was bland was a Tempura Bagel Roll. Staff are very friendly. Service is decently fast for Sushi. Their specialty rolls change often and are rather interesting. "Big" rolls run up to $10.95 but they are a lot of food.

                                            Ichiban is uniformly good on all fronts but it can be very busy at lunch and dinner rush and can be nigh upon impossible to get seated. This crowding sometimes affects service time, but has never changed the food quality.

                                            Good lunch spot of Fowler Ave is Tokyo Sushi (in the plaza with Applebee's at the intersection of 56th and Fowler). Food is great. Dizzying number of rolls on the menu. Very fair prices, epecially on lunch specials and early bird dinners.

                                          2. Besides Yoko's on South MacDill near Bay to Bay, I would recommend Tomo's in North Tampa. The spider chop chop is completly unique there, it's on North Bearss and Florida Aves.

                                            1. I'll echo the choice of Yoko's and Soho Sushi.
                                              Jeff is in charge of Soho.
                                              The last time I went and just told the chef to go for it I had some wonderful things that were not on the menu and tasted fantastic.

                                              1. I had a really bad first experience at Saumrai Blue, and was really down on the place for a long time. In the last year, I've given it another shot and been back several times with no complaints. I can't get enough of that Tuna Summer of Love roll. I also dig Yokho's and Ichiban.