Sunday, December 28, 2008

Taiwan Sushi, a la carte

Taiwan Sushi, Revisited

How about sushi a la carte, for 30 cents a piece?

When I first started to enjoy sushi back in the early 90s, I used to purchase nigiri and maki at 50 cents per piece from the Kaya Seafood Buffet in Temple City. That was considered extravagant. Then I moved up the sushi echelon in the mid-90s by visiting Kabuki in Pasadena, where a six-piece cut roll used to cost as little as $2.50, but only if you ordered the two-item minimum for lunch (or three-item minimum during dinnertime). Today I consider it reasonable to shell out $13 for a six-piece softshell crab roll from Nobu (the rule is, if it’s high quality, it’s worth it). But does the price-per-piece always scale upward?

Not so in Taiwan, where my American dollar stretched farther than normal to allow me that extra sushi-purchasing power.

On a recent vacation in my native country, I clamored for sushi to my uncle (not necessarily to protest the neverending Chinese cuisine, which was also delicious). After a brief hunt for my addiction, he parked his car curbside right before a street vendor selling sushi, a typical sight all over the city of Taipei—although the type of victuals offered is mostly Chinese; it takes a true local like my relative to know just where the rare Japanese food stands are propped up.

And there, neatly displayed in see-thru plastic cases, sat all the mutated versions of sushi—half a globe away, in the states, the seafood may have the same names—smoked salmon, ono, squid, shrimp and eel—but here they wear rare and unexpected toppings: lime-green seasoned seaweed powder (furikake), curly globs of sweet Japanese mayonnaise, crumbly crushed-peanut-like sprinkles, flaky black spices. Here the smelt fish eggs are yellow instead of orange, and wakame seaweed salad is used in the gunkan-style nigiri. Even the encasements of plastic wrap haven’t been removed, as if they’re left on to preserve freshness. It’s a long way from home, where I am used to seeing eel-sauce-drenched pieces and the typical accompaniments of ginger and wasabi. The flavor preferences are simply different here, where creaminess supercedes saltiness and tanginess overrides spiciness.

I don’t have much time to choose what I want. There are throngs of people eager to push me out of the way, and there are motorcycles parked on the sidewalk next to where I am jostling for a spot, and my uncle is illegally parked, as usual (there are never any parking spaces on this overcrowded Asian island, so if you think L.A. is bad…)!

I swiftly decide on six pieces that appealed the most to me, which cost NT $60 (equivalent to our $1.88). I fill a plastic box with renegade ham and corn sushi (just because they’re rare…and pretty); the tried but true ebi (shrimp); the mysteriously black flying fish roe (I still don’t know what makes some of these black and others orange); the pungent white fish that I believe was ono; and the odd creation that was apparently black rice wrapped inside a gooey rice paper of some sort, flavored with crispy peanutty crackles, cucumber and red ginger. Perhaps it’s the Taiwanese version of Futo Maki.

I would have chosen the individually plastic-enclosed hand rolls which resembled bursting salad bouquets, but the appearance of too much lettuce turned me off. It might have been interesting, though, seeing that the mixtures of ingredients were so daring and unusual—ham with crab, ham with eel, ham with shrimp…. Something tells me the Taiwanese love swine.

The result…a sweet lunch! Not only was this cheap, but it was quite tasty for street-vendor food, and because it was such a struggle to obtain it, I appreciated it that much more. (Well, not really, but most people would like to believe that.)

How About an Asparagus Hand Roll?

The Fanciest Asparagus Hand Roll

At the charmingly misspelled “ita basi susi,” which is an actual shop as opposed to street vendor, hand rolls sell for NT $60 each. I ordered the asparagus hand roll, and it came wrapped in a napkin and rubber band, another quirky touch you wouldn’t find in the U.S. The hand roll didn’t just have spears of fresh asparagus, but lettuce, furikake seasoning, and flecks of seaweed as well. I was impressed. If I were to order an asparagus hand roll at an American sushi bar, it would come with just that—asparagus.

But this walk-up eatery has no storefront, which is the style of many places of business in Taiwan. At closing time, the metal grills get pulled down from above and then locked down, which is just as efficient. There is also no dining area in which to sit, so the idea is to order it to go and then stand on the sidewalks eating, like everyone else.


Sushi Express in Taiwan

The chain known as Sushi Express features a revolving conveyor belt, which offers sushi similar to the street vendor kind—lots of sweet corn, ham, mayonnaise, creaminess…. They charge by the plate here, not by the piece—so it’s an ideal setup for sharing with others at your table. Maybe the prices are higher here, but the clean restaurant atmosphere (music and air conditioning and cutesy mascot, as opposed to smog and city noise) makes it worth the money.

Sushi Express locations dot the city, with a brand-new spot that just opened in the Global Mall. Last year, I was so disappointed when I found out I would already be back in the States by the time Sushi Express started passing out little collectible figurines that look just like the statue in the photo. I guess it’s sort of like their version of Happy Meal toy. Luckily, I at least have a photo souvenir.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Of BBQ Eel, Apples and Chocolate Sauce

Introducing: Sushi Gallery Miki

Miki has done it again.

The South Bay crowd can consider themselves lucky, for they no longer need to drive all the way to Laguna Beach for a taste of Miki Izumisawa’s genius. Appropriately titled “Sushi Gallery Miki,” the new restaurant is a tributary monument that offers a glimpse of the artistic talent of its owner and executive chef–as well as a splendid view of the ocean.

This extension into Manhattan Beach, open since July, is a reflection of its sister restaurant, the revered 242 Café Fusion Sushi on Coast Highway. Both are tiny, arty dives right by the beach, but although boasting the exact same sublime menu, this new three-storied version oddly lacks a sushi bar. Where the counter would normally be found, a glass deli-style case sits and displays bottles of Miki’s behind-the-scenes magic-potion sauces. Diners instead can choose to sit on glassy highchairs with matching tables on the upper deck, or down below in a modest dining area.

Miki herself is behind the design of all the space-age décor—down to the very projector in the bathroom that creates the illusion of outer space with its constellation of day-glow stars made of moving laser pinpoints. Try and find that quirky touch at another restaurant!

Even the menu is a sight to behold. Smirky titles such as “Fried Holes” grab at you…until you find out it’s just a fun way to refer to slices of lotus root. Most of the item descriptions are paired with images of nature that depict the look or flavor of the dish.

Let yourself be blown away by the appetizer called the "Fiery Capitol Reef," a jumble of eel slices framed with thin cuts of apple, then covered in a sticky-sweet brown liquid heaven born of sweet soy sake, the ever-versatile balsamic vinagrette and—believe it or not—chocolate syrup. The plate is hot, indicative that the entire dish was placed into an oven and baked at melting temperatures. This doesn’t wilt the apples, however, but merely makes them softer and more confluent with the freshwater fish. The wildly varied tastes join harmoniously, forever dashing my suspicions that eel, apple and chocolate couldn’t possibly go together.

The young blond lad of a waiter tried to retrieve the empty dish from me. “Are you done with this?” he politely asked, even though the platter held no more than the shiny residual goo that the eel was just wading in minutes ago. “Uh…I was going to lick the plate…” I said jocularly, honestly kidding at first. But then he took it seriously and let me keep it, so I thought, Why not? I picked up the dish and lapped up the syrup like it was the last great flavor on Earth.

I have no shame. Not when it comes to really good sauces.

The "FRILL" Hand Roll

Frill Me

If you’re in the mood for a hand roll, why not try the unconventionally rice-paper-wrapped “Frill,” which comes with scallop, spicy tuna, crab meat, almond, avocado and lettuce? A soy vinegar onion dipping sauce complements this refreshing alternative, which at $8 is one of the less pricey items on the roster.

The M 45 (Pleiades) Roll

Of Marinated Purple Cabbage...

The oddly-named “M 45 (Pleiades)” sounded tempting only because of its ingredients listed on the menu: white fish, yellowtail, tuna, smelt eggs, cucumber, marinated purple cabbage, ginger and black pepper. “Spicy olive, soy vinegar sauce” join in on the fun with this one, splashing more flavor into what already sounded like a sumptuous roll.

Instantly I became hooked on this sauce as well, which I am sure tasted even more sour and flavorful now that I had coated my tongue in chocolatized vinegar from the previous order. I decided right then and there that if I had a choice of where to have my final feast on the planet, it would be at either one of Miki’s legendary restaurants.

Sushi Gallery Miki is located at 2201 Highland Avenue in Manhattan Beach. Miki now moves between her two locations to serve her legions of fans, so it’s a good idea to call ahead of time if you want to ensure she is there to cater to your sushi whims and fantasies. Sushi Gallery Miki can be reached at 310-546-7160.