Sunday, June 14, 2009

Aoyama-- oh, mama!

Having never been to a sushi restaurant, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Knowing that this particular building used to be a Chi Chi’s didn’t help me get a picture in my mind’s eye. When we first walked in, a decidedly Caucasian teen wearing a kimono and plastic flip flops greeted us and led us to our table. She was the only one in a kimono and, I should note, the only non-Asian employee I saw that evening. I assume all the host/hostesses wear kimonos, because I later noticed a small stash of them hanging on the coat rack.

Near the entrance was a bar, strangely lit with blue lights. I was dim and a little unearthly, kinda alien. It was also unoccupied. If more people had been there, would the lighting be different? Apparently not; when we left, three people sat there sipping drinks in the same azure glow.

There was really nothing of the old Mexican restaurant left (although one of the first things I noticed after sitting down was a waiter coming by with a big, ridiculous margarita). The center of the restaurant had a sunken-in dining area, set apart from the bar further by a large waterfall cascading over shale-like brick wall. Several fake but realistic trees seemed to grow up from the floor, and the ceiling and surrounding pillars gave one the impression of being inside a wooden temple. To the right were raised rooms, walled off with ricepaper screened walls. These rooms had the hibachi tables in them. To the left were similarly raised and screened rooms with extra dining areas. At the back of the restaurant was a sushi bar, where the chefs assembled their bitesized art pieces on plates. Behind them, presumably, was the kitchen.

The set-up was encasing, cut off from the outside world. It could be midnight or noon outside, you wouldn’t know it from in the serene building. It makes for an ideal get-away, but I might go batty if I worked there. (Although one could say the same about a lot of places; Disney World comes to mind.)

I might have been overwhelmed by the many, many pages of the menu if I had taken the time to read it all and try to put together a meal. Most restaurants have entrees; essentially, you pick one. Here, though, picking one would leave you rather hungry, as it’s meant to be a tapas sort of thing. How many do you choose? What’s normal? What’s etiquette?

The whole etiquette concept was, I admit, intimidating. There are all kinds of ways to offend another culture, particularly one as custom-conscious as Japan. I once read an article warning never to rub one’s chopsticks together, as this is an insult suggesting that the chopsticks are made of inferior, splintery wood. I had never thought of doing this until I read it, and I’m not likely to do it now, but I think about it every time. It’s also not done to spear one’s foods with chopsticks. Or to leave them pointed… uh… okay, here’s the problem: I can’t remember all the rules! I know drowning your sushi in soy is a no-no, and leaving a bit of rice floating in your shoyou is very uncouth. You're supposed to put the sushi fish-down on your tongue, so that the first thing you taste is the fish and not the rice. This is hard because you have to twirl the sushi upside down as you get it to your mouth. I also heard Iron Chef Morimoto say once that he’s very offended when people cut their sushi or bite at it, as he’s the chef and he’s decided how big of a bite you’re to take.

In other words, it’s not exactly as service oriented, customer is always right, your wish is my command sort of dining that Americans are used to and have come to expect. (Could I have the 76er burger please? But with Monterey jack instead of mozzarella, no green peppers, and jalepenos instead of mushrooms? Thanks. And I’ll also have a side salad, no croutons, extra tomato, honey mustard dressing on the side. Ooh, and a refill on my water? No ice with a wedge of lime? Thanks…)

We were saved from making too many decisions by the option of the Sushi Plate for Two. Ah, thank you. You just give me what you know is good and I’ll eat it. Marvelous.
It was fantastic, fresh, and a feast for the eyes and the stomach. Case in point: they made a little palm tree on the plate out of a mound of wasabi and a sprig of celery leaf. How cute!
As you can see from the picture at the beginning of the post, there was tempura shrimp roll, tuna, salmon, yellowtail, shrimp, unagi, mackerel and california roll. The tuna was so buttery and melty--everything I wanted it to be. The mackerel was very fishy tasting, and the skin on it was a little off putting to me. But that's just a characteristic of the fish, and not a problem with preparation or service. The shrimp, usually a throw-away piece, was surprisingly sweet and free of the chewy, bad shrimp cocktail taste it can so often be. The shrimp tempura roll was surprising and succulent, with just the right amount of crunch. I really, really enjoyed myself. And while on the one hand it seems like a lot to eat, it's also not a lot in any one bite. Plus, it's a dish to share. I was almost surprised to find myself full. Of course, it came with a salad (with an unusual creamy sesame dressing) and soup (tuna broth based--too fishy for my taste. I was expecting it to be miso, though, so had I not been surprised, I might not have been displeased).

I highly recommend this restaurant and can't wait to try it again. My only regret was that the uni we ordered on the side was unavailable (due to being on special that day--they ran out.) A good excuse to go back!

1 comment:

  1. Brava! First class restaurant review. Felt like I was there.