Lovely Mackerel

In a splendid U District (yes, U District) restaurant, Japanese cuisine is pared down to exquisite essentials.

If I never have to eat another mega-maki, I'll die a happy man. Over the years, I have tasted just about every best-hits compilation of fish, fruit, vegetables, and fried dough that American sushi chefs have pressed into a log and labeled with a wacky name. I have bitten into rolls containing a salad's worth of lettuce that have disintegrated onto my shirt. I have squashed into my maw a piece of barbecued-eel maki papered over with salmon, shrimp, and tuna, tasting the flavor of none of the ingredients. I have even tried a Shrek roll. It had avocado scales and its own wasabi-mayonnaise swamp. Only after hearing that the sushi chefs at Shun Japanese Cuisine practiced the one-fish policy did I make my way to the nine-month-old U District restaurant. Turns out that owner Yoshi Nishizawa's sushi chefs do include a few American-style maki on the menu—spider, California, spicy tuna—but only as many as they can fit into one slim column of the menu. And while Shun's regular sushi is solid-to-great,depending on what you order, it's not the only classic Japanese fare that the restaurant does right. Up until about, oh, five minutes beforeI started writing this, I used to claim that my love for minimalist sushi made me a"traditionalist." Then I started reading the history section of Hiroko Shimbo's The Sushi Experience. I knew that sushi originated as fish preserved in salt and rice (for up to a year!), and that it slowly evolved into its current form starting in the 17th century. But I hadn't realized that my beloved nigiri used to be three times bigger prior to the U.S. postwar occupation of Japan, when rice rationing measures overseen by Gen. MacArthur decreed that only one cup of rice could accompany every 10 pieces of sushi. Two decades later, the first sushi restaurants appeared in Los Angeles; soon the inside-out California roll was invented, and sushi began swelling again. But while it's evidently the case that my sushi preferences stem from prejudice, rather than some sort of respect for "authenticity," the small size of the nigiri and (mini) maki at Shun still appealed to me. I could fit one piece into my mouth without looking like a hamster. The rice and fish were in proportion; each ball of rice, too, was pressed loosely enough so that it melted in my mouth, but not in my hands. My friends and I picked our way through the tray, meditating on its quiet charms: hamachi, the Luther Vandross of the raw-fish lineup, all smooth and sultry. The deep-sea richness of saba (mackerel), cut with a piece of shiso and a little ginger, followed by the sweet, tidewater crunch of a slab of geoduck. Firm, white cross-slices of octopus tentacle with frilly purple borders. Translucent ama-ebi (uncooked shrimp), served with a shrimp chip, otherwise known as the deep-fried shrimp's head—tasty, though I still have to pluck off the eyes to eat it. I gave myself over to the butteriest, sweetest piece of ginger-dabbed aji (Spanish mackerel) I've ever tasted, as well as my favorite treat, sea urchin, in its sweetness and texture so much like a dollop of pudding that I always save one piece for dessert. The sushi wasn't evenly great, however. The slicing of some of the fish was raggedy. The O-toro (tuna belly) tasted tinny, the salmon had no character, the crunch of a salmon-skin roll had a slightly burnt aftertaste, and the tuna in the spicy-tuna roll was chopped so fine it turned into a paste, a texture that I didn't warm to. None of this was bad, just disappointing in comparison with the good stuff. You might want to sit at the sushi bar and ask the chefs what they recommend rather than ordering off the menu. Like the sushi, the decor seems to take its cue from Calvin Klein: creamy neutrals, spare lines, good tailoring. The room, an open square, has straw-colored walls, ebony-varnished hardwood floors, and a functional-looking sushi bar off in one corner. One friend called the look of the room "real-estate agent's office," which I could see, but I thought little touches like the grid of cylindrical paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling and the two offset rectangular windows into the waiter's station kept the simplicity from being simply plain. The waiters, dressed all in black, weaved through the maze of black tables and chairs to bring diners little ceramic plates of food. For our second visit we stuck to the menu of cooked foods, from which you can easily construct a small-plates meal—though you may find yourself spending $30 a person (even without sushi or sake). With the exception of the bowls of noodle soup, everything is designed for sharing. Most of the cooked dishes I tried were prepared with the same attention to freshness and simplicity as the sushi. For the ohitashi, the cooks formed a cube of spinach leaves, lowering it into a pool of light soy sauce and scattering translucent coral bonito flakes against the bright green. For the nasu dengaku, they sliced a slim Japanese eggplant in half and roasted it until it turned silky, spreading salty red miso and red pepper puree on one half and a milder, green-black puree of spinach and white miso on the other. The miso soup was made with a stock rich enough that we could taste the kelp and bonito underneath through the fermented soybean paste, and the chicken yakitori were brushed with teriyaki sauce instead of being immersed in it. Nishizawa's black cod kasuzake couldn't have been broiled more perfectly, so that each layer of glossy meat peeled away with a nudge of the chopsticks, but its sake-lees marinade came on a little bitter and boozy. The only dish I didn't even attempt to finish was a bland American-Japanese soba salad, with greens, blanched broccoli, and buckwheat noodles that soaked up any flavor the dressing had. It was a reminder to me to stick to the classics. The crisp tempura was so light and feathery it looked as if it had been coated in snowflakes, served with ponzu sauce and a pile of grated ginger "for fragrance," as our waiter said. Like the sea urchin, the texture of the chawan-mushi, a savory custard made with eggs and stock, was sublime: Each dip of the spoon into the quivering, steaming custard, which would disappear into a wash of broth on the tongue, brought up some tidbit from the bottom of the cup. You may prefer your Japanese restaurants to coat their sushi in three kinds of roe or stuff them with spicy fried mango, but discovering a fat, pink prawn at the bottom of my cup was surprise enough to thrill me.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow