Thursday, April 14, 2005

Restaurant 4: Shimizu

LOCATION: 318 W. 51st Street
DATE: April 13, 2005
FOOD: Miso Soup; Seasonal Chef’s Omakase Menu: 1 maki – Negitoro (Fatty Tuna with Scallion Roll); 9 pieces sushi – Sea Eel with sudachi shavings, Sea Urchin, Giant Clam, Kanpachi, Sweet Shrimp, Chu-Toro, Red Snapper, King Salmon, Jack Mackerel, Fried Shrimp Head; Otoro Sushi (a la carte)
BEVERAGE: Glass of Tokushima Shochu (citrus & barley, 20% alcohol); Hot Tea (complimentary)
PRICE: $65.00

At the risk of being overly self-indulgent (I have a blog devoted to MY eating and reading habits, I think we’ve gone well beyond that point already), I have a confession to make. As a kid, it wasn’t the boogeyman or snakes keeping me up most nights (though spiders are another story). Rather, it was sushi, or really, raw meats in general that made me break out in cold sweats. Being the son of a Wisconsin (pronounced Viss-caun-saun, like the mom on "Bobby’s World") dairy farmer, I heard enough horror stories about the handling of slaughtered raw animals to keep multiple psychologists in business for the better part of my life. Cooking as a teenager involved ornate rituals of hand washing and counter de-cleansing to ensure the demonic unseen wouldn’t infect my unsuspecting body. And so while other people spent their college years pursuing sexual and pharmaceutical experimentation, mine involved novel experiences of another kind. Namely, popping my sushi cherry.

I’ve come a long way since then, and while I still can’t convince my parents to eat sushi (though this probably isn’t the place, it really bothers me that most people refer to maki (rolls) as sushi, when it’s not. Call it what it is. Only societal outcasts would refer to a hamburger as a sandwich. Okay, diatribe over), I now love it, my raw meat nightmares replaced by insatiable night time cravings for spicy tuna rolls and yellowtail.

Enter Shimizu and my first virgin Omakase (yes, I realize it’s taken me to the third paragraph to mention the restaurant of this restaurant review, refer to paragraph one to view the acknowledgment of my self-indulgence). Recently opened in the Washington Jefferson Hotel, it’d be easy to walk by this serene island of authentic Japanese cuisine without noticing it, an inauspicious blue-neon sign, being the only indication of the place’s existence. But that would be a shame, because everything about Shimizu works, from the simple interior, to the welcoming staff, to the high-grade quality of fish served. I was astonished that Shimizu was nearly empty during my entire meal. Hopefully, for the sake (get it? it’s spelled the same as Sake, last bad pun, sexual or otherwise, I promise) of New York Japanese food, this will soon change.

Novelty appeals to me and so I avoided the more traditional sake and opted instead for Shochu. According to the menu, Shochu is made from a variety of ingredients, most typically barley and potatoes, depending on which island creates the beverage. Our waitress steered us to the Tokushima Shochu. It proved mild and refreshing, but as the ice in the glass melted, I tasted too little alcohol and too much water. Danny ordered a brown sugar based Shochu later in the meal, and it’s much more pungent flavor appealed to me more than my original order.

But the Shochu was a sideshow. The fish was the reason we came. We ordered the Seasonal Chef’s Menu, consisting of 1 maki and 9 pieces of sushi. In addition, we also got the Otoro Sushi. This fish proved worth the extra attention. The tuna was so fatty and meaty, it didn’t really require chewing. It matched wonderfully with the fatty tuna and scallion maki, which followed in the theme of the meal (simple offerings expertly prepared) to produce a beautiful and subtle savor of tastes.

The sweet shrimp seemed to stick out its tongue and spit at all the other shrimp sushi I’ve had in my life, allowed a mocking laugh, secure in its gastronomical supremacy. The shrimp’s head was fried and served atop a lemon, providing an aesthetic centerpiece to the presentation. Crunchy and entirely edible, I never knew crustacean eyeballs and brain matter could be so delectable. The King Salmon was also remarkable, as was the nearly translucent red snapper, each allowed to have its unique flavor shine unadorned.

Novelty again played a part with the sea urchin, a new fish (mollusk?) for my palate. The creaminess of the golden sushi, wrapped in nori and topped with a hint of wasabi, left me speechless. How had I never had this before? My mind immediately went to Italy’s polenta or America’s grits, cheesy grain porridges being the only thing I could compare to the buttery texture. I found the giant clam tough, but interesting; the mackerel delicious; the sea eel possessed an enjoyable chewiness, the hints of sadachi shaved on top of the fish, making a strong pairing.

We ate at the bar, which I highly recommend, as you get to watch the chef prepare the fish, and his wizardly knife handling. Our meal ended with hot towels and steaming green tea. Like good wine, the tea seemed to facilitate conversation as we watched Shimizu-san slice through tuna and mackerel. Shimizu offers a lot of the standard American bastardizations, such as California and Boston rolls, even a Mexican roll with jalapenos. But I think the best way to benefit from the restaurant’s tranquility is to dine with authenticity. I guarantee that the fish, and your tongue, will thank you.

RATING: 8.0/10

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