Sushi Here, Sushi There
Plus a "snow-bleached" condiment. And a classic recipe from a beloved restaurant.
It hasn’t been the greatest week. My husband had an accident and ended up in the hospital. A couple of days ago, when he was released, kind friends sent us a wonderful care package in the form of an elegant sashimi and ramen dinner.
It could not have come at a better time.
The menu, from Iki Ramen, promised great things.
But the reality was so much more impressive!
The sashimi plate was spectacular. All the fish was excellent, but I was especially excited to find sayori (it’s at 8 o’clock), a very clean and rather crisp fish in the mix.
The donburi and yakimono were equally impressive. There is no way to describe how incredibly sweet, roe-filled and tender those grilled Santa Barbara prawns were. Loved the dashi-cured trout roe, and of course, the uni. But the surprise here was the miso eggplant: in this company the humble vegetable was an unlikely star, but it was truly spectacular.
The elegant ramen, with its light and extremely aromatic citrus-infused broth, made every ramen dish I’ve had seem rather clunky.
I didn’t take pictures of the ice cream because there was no way to convey the intensity of flavor or the softness of the texture. But afterwards there was this…
I have yet to visit the restaurant itself - but I can hardly wait.
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As we feasted on that wonderful meal I thought back to the most extraordinary sushi experience I’ve ever had. It was ten years ago, in Tokyo, at a tiny subterranean sushi bar. (We’d thought about trying to get into Jiro, but the idea of a fifteen minute meal held no appeal. I wanted to take my time, savor every moment. And that we certainly did.)
Walking down the cramped, narrow stairs to Sushiso Masa, a 7-seat counter in Tokyo, I had no idea that this experience would forever change my standards for sushi.
But as I inhaled one extraordinary slice of fish after another, I begin noticing nuances of flavor I'd never before experienced. Chef Masakatsu Oka is a pleasant, modest man who bends over the fish with a tender expression, intent on his work, but you can taste his passion in each bite. He's proud to answer every question: where was this fish caught? How long was it cured? Why? I noticed that he was not wearing the standard sushi chef's apron, but that of a sumo wrestler. A message?
The meal lasted 3 hours and included at least 35 different varieties of fish. I can’t recall them all, but I'll mention a few favorites.
Sea grapes - a seaweed from Okinawa - that was among the most refreshing palate cleansers I've ever encountered. Each little bubble popped in your mouth with a startling burst of brine.
Wild octopus - remarkably tender, with a creamy custard-like layer just beneath the crisp tentacles. I've never tasted anything quite like it.
Uni from Hokkaido. I'd always thought Santa Barbara sea urchins were the best in the world - and frankly I still do. But these were spectacular.
Sanma. This was so beautifully cut I wish I were a better photographer. But I can tell you that this was pure pleasure in the mouth. It was followed by the same fish, lightly grilled.
Tiny shrimp, each no bigger than a fingernail, each one so soft and tender that it seemed impossible it could contain such depth of flavor.
Karasumi - Japanese bottarga - the mullet roe cured to an entirely different taste and texture than any Mediterranean variety. Soft without being sticky, the surprise was that it was not the least bit salty. If you closed your eyes, you might be eating candy.
Fluke - and its liver. I expected the liver to resemble ankimo, the rich monkfish liver that is the foie gras of the sea. But this was entirely different: softer and much more subtle in flavor.
Anago - sea eel - was pure astonishment. It looked like every other piece of eel I'd ever eaten, so I was utterly unprepared for the almost fluffy texture of the fish. Or for the way it simply vanished, melting in my mouth like so much snow.
Trout roe, which exploded in my mouth, a tiny flood of flavor. The surprise here was that this was, once again, not the least bit salty. Just the pure essence of fish. Hiding underneath was a small ball of Oka-san’s rather amazing rice, which he mixed with four different kinds of vinegar.
I'm skipping so many wonderful fish: small herrings, kohada, fantastic tuna, a tiny grilled fish I ate in a single bite. But at the end there was this roll:
Toro, along with a strip of its own fat (Japanese lardo), and some finely julienned member of the onion family. Wrapped up in rice and seaweed, it made me think of Prexy's, a long-gone New York institution that claimed to serve "the hamburger with a college education." It was a very elegant translation - and one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted.
At the end, of course, there was tamago, a tiny square of mirin-enriched egg that was the perfect final flavor. Then we were bowed out the door, up the stairs, and into the raucous Tokyo night.
Since we seem to be in Japan today I want to tell you about one of my favorite finds as I strolled through Monsieur Marcel Gourmet Market last week. I’m ashamed to say that this ancient condiment was entirely new to me. It is now a proud addition to my pantry.
Kanzuri chili sauce is a traditional Japanese condiment from Niigata Prefecture, the snowiest place in Japan. Togarashi chilis are harvested in the fall and salt cured until winter arrives. They are then set out into the snow for a few days in a process called yuki-sarashi or snow bleaching. When the process is finished the peppers are mixed with shio koji, black garlic and yuzu peel and left to slowly ferment for three years. The result is complex, slightly spicy, sweet and savory. A few drops will enhance a noodle dish (think of it in place of chili crisp), fish, pork, vegetables… It’s endlessly useful. Put a couple drops in mayonnaise or make a simple sauce for grilled foods by mixing 3/4 cups soy sauce with 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 cup mirin and 1/4 cup kanzuri.
You won’t be sorry.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Tadich Grill, and a generous reader, Pamela Warren, was kind enough to send us the recipe they gave her for Cioppino.
I'm so sorry to hear of Michael's accident. Hope he recovers fully and quickly..
This posting makes my mouth water. I love the excellent photos and descriptions. Thank you.
Kalustyan's sells the Black garlic Kazuri and also their Shishito Kazuri.
We are just putting them on our website today for your customers!
123 Lexington ave
hope you hubby gets welll soon!