A whirlwind two week trip in NYC ends this evening. This time, I immersed myself in experiencing localized Japanese cuisine, especially since a unanimous chorus chimed that NY does Japanese food best. The jury’s still out where I am concerned, but I have to say that as a witness, I feel led down a fantastic culinary experiment.
I consider it a bit of irony. The two cultures have at different times in history, been at crosshairs with one another, from Pearl Harbor, to Hiroshima – Nagasaki disasters, to the stealth economic aggression displayed by corporate Japan in the 80s in displacing the label Made in USA (long before Made in China invaded American homes). To see gourmet symbiosis of this kind is like a happy ending… or even an excellent compromise.
So keeping aside the cliches of the uber cool Nobus, Morimotos, Megus etc (they don’t stand discounted, merely exceptioned) my recommendations in this article are two NY establishments that need no introduction to the local aficionados but a definite must-do for all visitors.
Sen-sei Gari set up his chopping board and omakase counter on 78th street between 1st Ave & York Ave about 13 years ago. That was when a good number of proud Japanese chefs were plotting a revolution to overthrow the abysmal assuage called California rolls that were being passed off as Japanese food. America needed to learn that Japanese cuisine was a seduction of senses that could not be defiled by a fast food interpretation!
About the meal itself at Sushi of Gari – a modest, cramped, brightly lit decor must be overlooked, or even intentional, so as to not upstage the food itself. The norm is to bring a curious appetite and to indulge in an omakase (chef’s selection incorporating a melange of his imagination and the day’s catch). You can ask for a combination of sashimi and sushi, but we preferred to rest on just the latter and were not disappointed by the trail of 12 individual nigiris being served to us, with toppings that I can swear, are unique to Gari. The palate-stealers are then ordered as repeats – washing this meal down is impossible as the grains of rice expand in one’s belly. All you can do is remind yourself – this is worth it!
Lasting impressions – the coal seared cod nigiri (smoky, tender, sweet rawness), the yellow tail jalapeno nigiri (perfect cut from the fin ensures a thread like texture, the spice of the pepper is matched with an undertone of wasabi) and the diced tuna dressed in sesame seeds and pine nuts, cocooned on a shell of fried seaweed balanced on a nigiri of rice (no sense is left unfulfilled).
A word about the service – outstanding, warm, patient and prompt! You will feel spoilt by the attention.
Tables are impossible to come by at short notice, so book in advance. Chances are, you’ll see me standing in line!
The other taste temptress of samurai proportions is Sushi Seki, named after its founder and head chef. Interestingly, Seki San worked under Gari San, before he branched off to set up his outpost a few blocks down the road (on 1st Ave, between 62nd & 63rd St.).
So this was my second visit to the restaurant, having been completely won over by an omakase at the chef’s counter I indulged in a year ago (served then by Jackie San). I have to say that the meal was a bit inconsistent this time, though the quality of ingredients called out fresh uniformly. I suspect the slide was because we were seated at a table this time, so the attentiveness of the chefs at work does suffer. Also, we had a patronizing waiter who did his unwitting best to spoil the experience. The food was the redemption.
About the meal itself – We did the sushi & sashimi combo omakase here. The sashimi platter was perfectly adorned as it appeared before us. However, the single slice portions per person left us rather under satiated. My call – the fatty tuna – cut to perfection. The sushi platter made its appearance. The yellow tail nigiri was a stand-out dish by itself. And the piece-de-resistance was the handroll that made its appearance at the end.
Now I have already established how I look down on the whole California roll/ hand roll culture. If it must be sushi, then only nigiri and maki will do. However, I have to make a big exception for the Seki handroll. The seaweed wrap deserves a paragraph by itself. An uncut sheet, beaten thin to a nano feel between one’s fingers, a preserved crispness that allows for perfect perforation with each bite. And a taste of the ocean that makes you feel like a a worshipped Moby Dick. The filling was of a mother-load of melange of crabmeat, scallop chunks and raddish. The wonderment was how that sheet of seaweed managed to whole this weight together.
This is what I will go back to Seki for. And only if I get a seat at the chef’s counter.