Close Sushi Is Good Sushi

In Nijo's case, proximity goes a long way.

The first sushi I ever had was from a grocery store. Wegman's grocery store, to be exact, in Rochester, New York. One black plastic clamshell to-go box, a little piece of fake grass, a mound of green-dyed horseradish masquerading as wasabi, sliced ginger that tasted like sucking on disinfecting wipes. There were four pieces of tekka maki, the tuna an impossible purple like it was being strangled, and two ebi handrolls. The rice tasted like eating a mouthful of nursery-school paste, the shrimp like biting the blade of a plastic spatula. It was singularly awful sushi. And I loved it like I loved my first blowjob.View a "Food Porn" slideshow of Nijo. Caution: there is a shot of little baby octopi which may be upsetting to some viewers. Fish in my neighborhood came in two versions back then: caught over the weekend, dumped in a stinking cooler, then burned to carbonized blackness on a backyard grill; or fried up on Friday nights and served at every restaurant like a safety net, so all us Mick Catholics wouldn't get our asses sent to hell for accidentally eating a cheeseburger. To consume fish in any other form was to arouse the suspicion of friends and neighbors—as though if you were willing to do that, maybe other things about you bore watching. And to eat raw fish? That hinted at proclivities best not discussed in public. Still, I kept going to Wegman's. If I wanted sushi from somewhere else, I had to go into downtown Rochester. And even there it was scarce. But Wegman's was close. I could walk there from my high school, and sometimes did—skipping study hall or, on good days, sneaking out for a smoke during lunch and blowing off my dumb-kid math class that came after, then coming back for AP English with my tongue gummy and my breath smelling of horseradish and fish. It took me years to get hip to the good stuff, to find the new champions and old masters who really knew their way around a piece of hirame or maguro. I ate fish flown in daily from the markets of Osaka, from the hands of chefs who'd spent decades practicing the swift movements that can turn a slip of fish and a hundred grains of rice into something delicious. I ate sushi in Buddhist temples and in cool, clinical dining rooms where the only decoration was a lacquered wood table set with a single ikebana flower. I ate dollar sushi. I ate strip-mall sushi. I ate sushi when I traveled, and sometimes traveled just to eat sushi. I slouched around some of the best bars in the country, and ate fish like I could never, ever get enough. But still, that Wegman's sushi hung with me. I've never forgotten it—the thrill of the new, the joy of walking, even briefly, on food's wild side (wild for that time, anyway, and that place). In later years, sitting on a plane and knowing that in just a matter of hours I would be circling down into some new city where, more than likely, I would eat sushi, I would wonder whether it was worth it: traveling hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles just for a few little pieces of fish. Standing outside some hot new joint, hemmed in by crowds and waiting for a chance to spend a hundred, two hundred, a thousand dollars on fish, I would think about how easy it'd once been: a short walk, a couple bucks, a plastic takeout box, and then that sweet moment when I could pop the first tekka maki into my mouth and feel like I was truly experiencing something different. So the question becomes, What's more important: that sushi be great or that sushi be there? Let's be honest: For 95 percent of people, what matters is that their sushi be fresh. That it won't poison them or send them, a minute or an hour later, scrambling for the bathroom to lie like some wounded animal on the tiles. Beyond that bedrock concern, everything else is negotiable. People may say different. They may quest after the presumed luxury of the rare, expensive, or uncommon, but that's just a sushi thing—as much about status as about the pure appreciation of flavors or technique. Not one person in 10 can really taste the difference (or have eaten enough to even consider the difference) between a bonito shipped frozen to some local seafood purveyor, thawed, cut to order, and delivered in the back of a panel van to the back door of a restaurant two days ago, and one blast-frozen just 10 minutes out of the water, then shipped straight from Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market to Seattle. Sometimes I can't, and God knows I've eaten enough to know better. I have had arguments that lasted hours over how to pour soy sauce, how to hold chopsticks, when (or if ever) to use wasabi—fighting as if these things really mattered. They don't. That's another sushi thing: the idea that half the experience is appreciating an ancient and rigorous food culture which prizes decorum and civility and only the finest of things. Balls. Sushi was the world's first fast food. Sushi "restaurants" were the world's first food trucks. A billion years ago, outside the walls of the city of Edo, a bunch of grubby Japanese fishermen got the bright idea that they could probably make a few bucks off all the junk fish and scraps they had left over after a day at the market if they set up along the main drag—the course walked by all the merchants and businessmen coming and going from the city—and sold fish to people who were likely hungry and looking at a long walk home. Having no refrigeration, they would salt the fish, or cut it thin and dry it. And to serve it, they would press a piece into a ball of vinegared rice, smile, and ask for their cash. Edomae sushi became huge. Everyone ate the stuff. And while, yes, the cuisine has been refined over centuries (if there's one thing the Japanese are good at, it's refining a thing down to its basic principles, its constituent elements), it is not a lot different today than it was then: quick grub for the hungry and cash-strapped. And in that way, Wegman's and all those strip-mall, dollar-menu sushi joints with their buzzing neon and maneki niko good-luck cats are doing more to uphold the tradition of classical Edo sushi than any Nobu or Masa ever has. Sushi is not special. It is no more or less important than grits or dumplings or coq au vin. Which brings me again to that central question of proximity vs. parity: Is it more important that sushi be great or that it be available? Is "good enough" enough? Yes. It is. For me, anyway. And that's why I love Nijo. The most important thing about Nijo is that it is right downstairs from my office—in the same building, actually, and so available as to make it (or maybe me) seem almost unseemly. I am a fish slut. I go where I can get it easiest. And in this fish-sick town, where there are probably as many sushi rollers as baristas, Nijo is the place where—over two, maybe three dozen visits—I've eaten more fish than anywhere else. But there's more than just convenience. Nijo is one of those restaurants which in its modernity (they serve maki with sauce—gasp!—and will deep-fry pretty much anything that walks or swims), is about the glorification of Japanese food, not some dusty notion of Japanese culture. I like places that dedicate themselves to the atom-by-atom reconstruction of long-forgotten pages from the Book of Lost Cuisines, don't get me wrong. I love a joint that completely geeks out on being able to score native ingredients or manage tricky, traditional preparations. But a part of me also likes those that stick a thumb in the eyes of traditionalists and, by way of a menu, seem to say, "Uh, you guys know this is 2010, right? And we're all sitting in Seattle?" No disrespect, but you're probably not going to find a Ponies and Rainbows roll on the board at Maneki. But Nijo has one: tempura shrimp and crab salad, rolled in rice and mame nori (yellowish soybean paper, absent any flavor at all), covered in tenkasu (crunchy little tatters of fried dough), and drizzled with eel sauce. I go there one night and order the Dancing Shrimp (because I always order the Dancing Shrimp) and some gyoza and agedashi tofu, and it all arrives, it seems, before the words are out of my mouth. Tonight, the gyoza suck. They're Fancy Feast, with a flavor like something rotten, and are burnt besides—standing upright on their little bed of soy-soaked red cabbage like an insult. I push the plate aside. The tofu is too hot to eat immediately—cubes of it puffed up like little, golden pillows, served with bonito flakes and a ginger tendashi sauce. But as always, the Dancing Shrimp are addictively good—hitting that sweet spot of spice mixed with sweetness, of cheap fried food and cold beer. Another night, stepping in from the cold and wet of Post Alley, I take a position at the short bar in the back to watch a muted football game, drink a neat whiskey, and eat. This time, the gyoza are perfect—crisp and hot, filled with pork paste and green onion—and I knock back a plate of them in about a minute while waiting for the sushi bar to come through with kani, maguro, hamachi, and sweet, folded tamago wrapped in a nori ribbon like an omelet made by one of Santa's Japanese elves. Behind the sushi bar, the cutters and rollers do not shout greetings to customers or dance around and catch fish in their hats. Nijo isn't that kind of place. They are focused and precise, working silently through a constant stream of orders, and they have some skills. When my kani come, the crab sticks (leg meat, sweet and chilled) are equally sized and tied to a rounded egg of tender, delicately sweet rice. The maguro are beautiful—flat, undifferentiated lozenges of flesh, pink like candy or paste rubies and warmed just slightly by the hands that had pressed them to their balls of rice. It seems, for an instant, almost a shame to eat them. But then I do, with my own hands, two bites apiece—and I am hungry again, for short ribs glazed and sticky with soy and ginger or for yam fries with wasabi oil and wasabi aioli that are never quite as good as I think they're going to be. I go to Maneki. I go to Mashiko. I go to Pinto and Chiso and Kisaku. On a Friday night, I could cross town, fight the traffic, fight for parking, fight for a seat at any one of a hundred other sushi bars. But instead I go downstairs, walk around the corner, and go to Nijo to sit against the windows, in the dark, sleek dining room, and drink miso soup with tofu as though it were a cup of tea, then eat crispy, fried sole with ponzu sauce that's like a Japanese version of my Irish Catholic Friday nights back in Rochester. And I am happy—not because I got so lucky that the greatest sushi restaurant ever happened to open in a space just 30 seconds away, but because when I find myself hungry and tired at the end of a day and with a long way to go to get home, I know that between me and the journey are a bunch of smart guys with sharp knives and black jackets waiting just past the mouth of the alley to fill me up with scraps of fish and vinegared rice, collect their pittance, smile, and send me on my way Price Guide Dancing shrimp  $6 Crispy sole  $6 Short ribs  $10 Gyoza  $7 Ponies and Rainbows  $12 Maguro  $6 Kani  $6  

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow