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.


Jules said...

sounds amazing!! remind me of that part of ruth reichl's book where she talks about following some woman on the street, down a stair case and to the most amazing sushi place she'd ever been to... all on the hunch that this woman was going for some good food.

Lauren said...

Kuruma Zushi, Yes!! I remember the passage well. The book was actually within arms reach when I read your comment so I reached over and re-read it. Mmmm....