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The Sushi Experience

BY WENDY LECHNER PHOTOS BY RICK COOPER & VAL SCHOGER

Sushi has a long and somewhat mysterious history. By definition, sushi is vinegared rice with a filling or topping of raw, cooked, or marinated fish, shellfish, vegetables, or egg.” No one quite knows how it all started, but fish were being pickled and served with rice in Southeast Asia as early as the 5th century BC.

Some believe that sushi may have come to Japan with the first rice production in the 4th century BC, while others believe it was brought to Japan by Buddhist priests who had been training in China in the 7th century AD. By the 15th century, fish and vinegared rice were wellestablished. Japan is credited with making the first “fast food” in the 1800s when small streetside establishments placed a slice of raw fish on the top of a shaped rice ball. Today, sushi is an art, a style, and an array of flavors where any diner can find a delicious morsel that pleases the palate.

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Firefly is simply the best local restaurant to experience sushi whether you are a wellseasoned sushi connoisseur or a novice interested in a first-rate delicious experience.

For diners who want to gently dip into the world of sushi for the first time, owner Dave Trepanier says the staff at Firefly will gladly help the novice choose items that are “not scary.” He notes that there are both strong and mild tasting fish. While the novice might not wish to try the sashimi the first time, a plate of beautifully presented, precisely sliced salmon or ahi, gently perched on a small pillow of delicately seasoned rice (nigiri), can be a revelation. And for the seasoned sushi diner, the experience at Firefly will not disappoint. “First, we eat with our eyes,” Dave notes. Each dish is beautifully and uniquely presented. Perfectly aligned morsels, as much art as they are a meal, will arouse the appetite of any diner.

Firefly restaurant has been known for its outstanding fine cuisine since it opened in 2007. In 2009, owner Dave Trepanier started incorporating sushi into the restaurant’s menu. This, mind you, from a man who didn’t like fish for his first thirty years.

Dave Trepanier’s first encounters with sushi were in southern California where he met his wife, Stacy, a Panama City native. At the time, Stacy was an aspiring actress and Dave a band and tour manager. The couple started haunting sushi restaurants together, from the hottest spots to the simplest hole-in-the-wall joints. Dave remembers, “It was life-changing.” With this, his discernment of where to get the freshest and most flavorful dishes grew. He remembers his favorite sushi restaurant at the time was not a trendy Hollywood hotspot, but was in a Best Western Hotel in Studio City with the resident traditional sushi chef, Koji, sharing the art of preparing sushi.

Jump forward a number of years. Dave brought Firefly restaurant to fame and today it is a landmark for fine dining in Panama City Beach. When Dave quickly realized that none of the local places would measure up to his high standards in sushi, he hired a sushi chef and created the menu that was prepared in the main kitchen. A couple years later as the popularity grew, Dave knew he needed to expand and he added the sushi bar. It offers the freshest ingredients done right. Dave says the Firefly Sushi Bar doesn’t pretend to be a New York or Los Angeles trendy hot spot. Rather, the accent is on excellent flavors and presentations, both classic and innovative. Plus, the sushi staff takes into account local tastes to make sure locals and visitors alike will have an outstanding sushi experience.

All flavors are clean and well-balanced. For instance, the tuna and cucumber roll comes in just a small amount of slightly salty, citrusy ponzu sauce that brings out the flavors of the rolls without overpowering them.

The exquisitely fresh salmon and ahi tuna nigiri are perfectly sliced and draped over some of the best rice one will ever encounter. Rice might seem a simple thing but, in the world of sushi, the rice is a critical component. At Firefly the texture is just right with just a touch of both sweetness and vinegar (mirin) to enhance rather than overpower the fish.

The condiments enhance the fresh flavors as well. The diner can place a small dot of green wasabi on the nigiri for heat and then, with fingers or chopsticks, dip a corner of the nigiri in the soy sauce to add a pleasant saltiness. Dave says the condiments should complement the flavors of the fish and rice rather than be the main attraction. To clear the palate between courses, taste a paper-thin slice or two of pickled ginger. Firefly’s ginger is a joy in itself, it tastes so fresh, and it prepares the diner for the next bite.

Left to right:  James Zehar, ShihChieh Chang, Dave Trepanier, Mathew Washington

Left to right: James Zehar, ShihChieh Chang, Dave Trepanier, Mathew Washington

The Sushi Bar at Firefly has three chefs, Mathew Washington, ShihChieh Chang and James Zehar. The well-trained sushi chefs balance each other, Dave points out. Sushi does take great skill and care. All of his chefs have excellent skills and a desire to make the best sushi on Panama City Beach. Each sushi chef has their own style and creativity. These attributes are evident throughout the menu.

Dave, a man of warmth and gentle pride in what the Firefly Sushi Bar presents, says there are few rules when it comes to choosing selections from his menu. However, for the full experience, he suggests an appetizer or salad, followed by a selection of nigiri or sashimi. Next, select a roll, some of the most unusual items on the menu. For example, the Cat’s Eye Roll will delight those who like a touch of spice. The center is a tempura-fried krab stick and green onion, which is surrounded by rice in a soy wrap and topped with ahi, paper-thin slices of avocado, spicy mayonnaise, and a dot of hot sauce. The salad provides a slightly sweet crunch. Soy wraps are a great option for the novice since they have none of the fishiness of a traditional nori (seaweed) wrap.

One of the most delightful and surprising undertones at the Firefly Sushi Bar is the sense of humor in the list of maki (rolls). Names such as the Slammin’ Salmon roll and the Bubba Roll can’t help but create curiosity.

The Slammin’ Salmon Roll is an awesome combination of salmon, krab, boursin cream cheese, jalapeno, bacon, chili paste, and chipotle lime aioli topped with apple, strawberries, red onion, lump crab, and miso sauce. Taste buds will sing as they encounter the fresh taste of salmon, the smoothness of the boursin, the sweet crunch of the bacon, and the zip of the chili flavors. The fruit sauce on top takes it all to the next level. What is perhaps most amazing is the fact that the chef can make each flavor discernable, but at the same time, perfectly balanced.

The Bubba Roll picks up on the idea that we here in the South love our beef and Firefly excels at fine beef. The Bubba Roll contains filet mignon beef, boursin cream cheese, green onions, and tempura crunchies. A magnificent roll with a sense of humor! And that’s just the beginning. Other choices include the Heisman Roll (a homage to Dave’s USC roots), the Little Richard Roll, and the Rude Roll, an homage to a well-known local who some might call large and crabby. These rolls beg to be tried.

While you’re at the Firefly Sushi Bar, be sure to try the Japanese beer or sake. The clear to milky looking sake is brewed from rice. There are ample choices with something to suit everyone’s pocketbook and level of adventure. For a diner looking for a good mid-price range sake, Dave suggests the Momokawa Pearl Junmai Ginjo Nigori Genshu, a sake that Dave recommends be served cold. It has mild, refreshing white wine and citrus flavor with just a touch of zing on the finish. It’s a delicate, flavorful accompaniment to a great meal. If you are an aficionado of sake, there are exquisite choices to sip and savor.

A meal at the Firefly Sushi Bar is a delicious adventure in a delightful place. Above all, Dave stresses that Firefly doesn’t want to be stagnant. The menu is always changing. In addition, when you’re in the Sushi Bar you’re not limited to sushi. The entire Firefly menu can be enjoyed there. It is a comfortably busy place with great food, great music, and great atmosphere. It has a wonderful “local hangout” feel where you can enjoy a relaxing evening of wonderful food and friendship. Any meal at Firefly is a joy and, without question, the Firefly Sushi Bar is sugoi – in Japanese, it’s simply amazing!

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