Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Omakase at Sushi Azabu

About a week before Rob's birthday, I began my late yet important search for the perfect restaurant for Rob's celebration. So like any normal person, I began scanning Frank Bruni's archives on the New York Times for something noteworthy yet affordable. I stumbled on a recent article highlighting two sushi joints -- Kanoyama and Sushi Azabu -- as "everyday luxuries" and "bargains." When I think bargain sushi, my mind automatically shifts to a dilapidated restaurant promoting "50% off Sushi!!" on a busy, heavily Jewish Midwood street I lived on for a short (short!) while, but I knew that putting the review in perspective meant that this sushi was beyond anything Rob or I have ever had the luxury of trying before. I chose Sushi Azabu because of its hidden nature, nestled in the basement of the Greenwich Grill in Tribeca.

I had Rob meet me at the Canal Street E stop, then he followed as we made our way to Greenwich street. Rob was definitely surprised when I stopped at the Greenwich Grill and went inside. He had a look on his face that said "What, I'm supposed to eat a cheeseburger on my birthday?" but when we descended down into the hidden sushi lair, he understood. We took two of the eight chairs along the sushi bar, and behind us were only three tables. Very cozy for a basement.
First we ordered two glasses of Wataribune sake, which was dry but very light and slightly floral. Then we asked the sushi chef for the omakase tasting course. He asked if we had any dietary restrictions or allergies. and when we told him we'd eat anything he gave us, he seemed pleased.

And so with super thin chopsticks in hand, we began the six-course meal that went a little something like this:

1) Sashimi -- Here we were each given three pieces of amazingly fresh fatty tuna, two pieces of snapper, raw shrimp and sea urchin in sea water. I'd never had raw shrimp and it was incredible; one bite into the meaty body and it coated my whole mouth in sweet liquid. I don't even like cooked shrimp but this was unforgettable. The sea urchin was really interesting, it has a spongy quality that disintegrates into liquid once you pop it into your mouth. The snapper was a bit fishy but the tuna was soft and clean tasting. The presentation on this one was great as well: the shrimp was adorned with its tail fanned out and a single vine of tiny purple flowers was laid out across the dish.

2) Giant Oyster -- and when I say giant I mean humongous. It was served in a ponzu sauce with scallions. I am not an oyster person and this menacing-looking thing on my plate was no exception. I took two bites of the cold gray gunk and the taste of ocean was overwhelming. The light floral sake did nothing to get rid of the taste. I guess you have to be an oyster person for this one -- even though Rob's an oyster person and he described it as "too much oyster."

3) Tempura Ankimo -- This was the best monkfish liver I have ever tasted! On the spot I dubbed it "the foie gras of the sea." It was lightly fried with some sort of leaf (I think the sushi chef called it a lime leaf?) and served with (fittingly) a lime and a small mound of salt so you could margarita-fy to your liking. The ankimo itself was incredibly tender, and with that fried, salty crust it melted in your mouth.

4) Egg Custard (Chawan Mushi) -- This traditional steamed dish isn't my favorite, but I can understand why people like it. Custard to me should be sweet and dessert-y, not miso-flavored with hunks of mushroom. But I still liked this one, mostly because it had so many hidden surprises (crab, gingko nuts) and the overall lemon scent was nice.

5) Seaweed in Vinegar Broth -- The chef called this masagusu (sp?), tiny strands of fresh seaweed in a watery broth made of vinegar, bonito, and a few wisps of ginger. Somehow, this wasn't nearly as sharp as I thought it would be -- it was actually light and kind of sweet. A good primer for the grand finale of sushi.

6) Grand Finale of Sushi -- The final course was made up of eight individual pieces of sushi that the chef would create one at a time, then reach over and plunk down on the black slab in front of us. Each piece of fish was fitted on top of the most perfect mound of sushi rice (each grain was plump and soft, like sushi-risotto), with a bit of wasabi hidden in the middle so it tasted exactly as the chef intended. At one point I asked Rob if we could hire this guy to hand-feed us the rest of our lives. There was something very sexy about being fed one piece at a time... kind of like a food strip tease.

a) Amberjack -- Probably my favorite. Kind of like the tuna, a little less fatty, still very fresh and clean without any fishy taste.

b) Grouper -- Don't remember too much about this guy.

c) Medium Fatty Tuna -- Like tuna on steroids, very juicy and flavorful.

d) Baby White Shrimp -- Cut up into small pieces.

e) Sea Scallop with salt -- A bit fishy but (of course) very very fresh.

f) Salmon Roe -- This was the only exception to the on-rice with wasabi in the middle rule. The mountain of roe pops in your mouth while the seaweed evens it out with something more substantial. I thought this would be too fishy for me but it was actually perfect.

g) Sea Urchin -- This little guy from the first course came back to take a bow, again the juicy melt-in-your-mouth quality shined through with the sushi rice giving you something to chew on this time.

h) Sea Eel -- Perfect way to end the tasting meal. The sea eel was the only one that was hot, and it had a hint of sweetness. There must have been some sort of glaze on it, but the chef didn't tell us.

At this point we'd been indulged for close to two hours, but it didn't stop us from ordering dessert. We tried the chocolate semifreddo, which is like a half-frozen slab of chocolate ice cream with caramelized hazelnuts on top and chocoate syrup on the bottom. Chocolatey goodness. Then after THAT we were brought two large cups of Japanese "roasted" tea. Very hot and woody and a nice finish to our meal. On our way out we tried the bathrooms (heated toilet seats equipped with hot water spray capabilities, highly recommended) and were helped into our coats before we were back on the street, full and happy and a little bit dizzy. We took a cab home so we wouldn't have to waddle to the E train and let loud people kill our after-dinner buzz.

Now that I've gone I think I understand what Frank Bruni meant by a bargain -- we were hand fed super fresh and high quality fish (flown from Japan!) and treated like royalty for two and a half hours. I'd go again if I could, but an "everyday luxury"?.... not even close.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Old and New on 53rd Street

A few weekends ago Rob and I found ourselves in the middle of midtown on a Saturday, in serious need of a drink and some food. I wanted to try the new Vero Midtown wine bar on 2nd ave and 53rd street, so we headed over for some wine and upscale snacks.

It was the middle of the day, so we were one of the few people there. I ordered the Fife "Redhead Red" syrah and was a bit disappointed -- I expected with a name like that, the wine would have more spice to it. Rob ordered his usual Reisling and enjoyed it.

Most of the menu here is made up of small, shareable plates. I was most excited about trying the saffron arancini -- it was pretty much the reason I wanted to go to Vero in the first place. I've always loved arancini (fried rice balls with mozzerella) but these were made with risotto and had saffron in them. I figured it would be an ultimate version of an Italian favorite, but I wasn't a big fan. It was mostly risotto and not a lot of melted cheese, and the saffron gave it a weird aftertaste. It just didn't come together like I'd hoped.
Since we had just barely whetted our appetites, we ordered one more plate -- the veal meatballs. These heavenly little treats were incredibly tender and more than redeemed all the mediocre arancini and wine. I thought the golden raisins and pinenuts would be weird, but they definitely added some great texture to the meatballs that otherwise melt in your mouth. They were served atop some incredibly delicate ("slow cooked") san marzano tomato sauce and a beautiful green basil sauce. A dollop of white ricotta cheese on top and what do you know? A delicious Italian flag.

Well, at this point we'd spent over $50 and we were more hungry than when we first showed up to Vero. So instead of ordering more plates, we headed west on 53rd for some substantial eats at our old favorite subterranean Mediterranean spot, Marrakesh. Well, its more like Middle Eastern cuisine that has everything from Moroccan soups to Mediterranean sandwiches and even pasta specialties. I've never tried anything that leans towards Italian, but of all things babaganoush and falafel-y this place has never disappointed us. And we've been coming pretty consistently for about two years now.

I have no idea why no one is ever here, but each time we go we're one of only two or three parties. We always take the same spot, under the window. The service is always really friendly but kinda slow. And we always get the mint tea. Always. It's so sweet that it hushes my sweet tooth long after we leave. But it's also clean and refreshing and comforting. and it comes from a cute silver pot on an engraved silver tray. What more could you ask for?

This visit I tried something I hadn't before -- the couscous with lamb and seven vegetables. The platter was huge, and when I was absolutely full I still had enough for a full lunch the next day. The lamb was tender, the vegetables were exotic yet seasonal (some types of squash?), the couscous was perfect even microwaved after it was refrigerated. Rob got some kind of platter with all the good stuff -- hummus or babaganoush with falafel and salad. As always, it was affordable, satisfying, and we left feeling as though we just had a homecooked meal in a cozy and secret locale.

Below: the lamb couscous and combo platter.

Overall: midtown isn't the greatest place to be stuck when you're hungry, but if you have a solid go-to spot you can feel a little safer trying something different.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Continuing Taco Obsession

Ever since we got back from Portland, Rob and I have been looking for local tacos that rival ?Por Que No?. It's strange, but you always find the best food in the weirdest places.

Halloween night we visited San Loco in Williamsburg. We'd been there once before and neither of us were really wowed by it, but we were in the area and just needed a warm place to eat quick before a live music show down on Bedford. I'd also read a few really surprising reviews about it saying it was the best Mexican in Williamsburg. Maybe our memories failed us?

But it turned out we were right. The space is welcoming, the bartenders are really nice (they gave us some free candy), there's a pool table in the back. But the food is just a step above Taco Bell. I tried the Guaco Loco -- one of those soft shell/hard shell combos with guacamole in the middle -- and they majorly skimped on the semi-brown guac. Rob got the nachos and they just looked like a soggy disaster. BUT I can honestly say that those mini Milky Ways they were handing out were really good.

The next day we were walking down Bedford and passed the Endless Summer truck. It's been parked there since the beginning of the year but we hadn't really thought much about giving it a try until then. I wasn't going to get anything, but once I saw Rob's pork taco I immediately wanted one too. For $2.50 you get a heap of pork so big they have to double up on the soft shells, topped with lots of cilantro, queso fresco (that crumbly cheese you always find on authentic tacos), and a lime on the side. Pour some hot sauce on that puppy and it looks like we found a winner. It was even worth it to wait in line while listening to the taco assembler argue with a customer about why it wasn't "cost-effective" for them to offer fish tacos (sorry seafood lovers).