Friday, February 20, 2009

Blue Crab: The Good Versus Bad

How to Avoid the Blue Crab Blues

Try as I might, I cannot find a blue crab roll that beats the legendary creamy stuff concoted by Chef Nozawa, or the sweet heavenly version whipped by the masters of Sushi Park in Hollywood. In my random exploits, I am often let down—and I have to remind myself that this experimentation process is what enables me to uncover hidden treasures every now and then as I weed out The Bad Ones.

This curious quest is what made me curious enough to sample the blue crab hand roll at Sushi Kiyono in Beverly Hills, which at $7.50 wasn’t too pricey a risk, I thought…until I saw the white plastic generic-label box from which the sushi-builder scooped dry-looking, flaky pink-white meat. I knew from looking at it that I wouldn’t like it, knew that perhaps the refrigerated container meant they had ordered this directly from a crab-purveyor and didn’t add any of their own saucy touches to it, but it was too late to halt the haste of a worker whose speed bespoke his inattentiveness to detail and his desire to simply get my order out of the way. I mean, the place wasn’t even busy.

But the predicted plainness of the crab was made even blander by the lack of seasoning in the sushi rice, which was just a notch above the regular steamed rice one would find in a Chinese restaurant. There was no Japanese mayonnaise added to moisten the dryness or sweeten the taste, and when I asked for a touch of mayo the sushi-maker provided the American variety! (I will note that American mayonnaise, such as Kraft Best Foods mayonnaise, makes a great sauce when mixed with heapings of masago, as demonstrated by the mixture in the Dynamite Roll at Tokyo Delve’s in North Hollywood, but it hardly combines well with blue crab.)

Although he has been called The Sushi Nazi due to his strict policies and general sternness of face and manner, Chef Nozawa, who heads Sushi Nozawa in Studio City and Sugarfish by Nozawa in Marina Del Rey, prepares blue crab rolls that reign supreme. Not only do they taste improbably fresh, but there is some kind of creamy sauce mixed in that is not just Japanese mayonnaise, but something else, some secret seductive ingredient I don’t dare ask about. Your ability to attain the crustacean of the blue-tinted shell, however, is complicated by the Omakase style of the restaurant.

Omakase, which means chef’s choice in Japanese, is exactly that—you sit and wait to eat what the chef wants you to eat. “No choice!” are the two words grunted by Nozawa, who rules from behind his bar of grade-A fish (the freshness of which has established his reputation and ensures the return of each guest—well, that and perfectly seasoned rice).

In 1996, when I was a California Roll-consuming rookie, I had wandered onto Nozawa’s terrain and stupidly asked for a California or Shrimp Tempura Roll, two popular Americanized items that he strongly opposes. I had no idea this was equivalent to uttering blasphemy in Nozawa’s sushi sanctuary… I was lucky he simply said No to both, and I was turned away, not thrown out. Nozawa finally earned my respect when I took a chance one day and dined like a proper student at his bar, behind which hangs a sign that says TRUST ME.

Not only do you have to trust his food quality and selection, but you have to trust his judgment in what you can afford—you don't don’t find out your bill total until after you’ve called it quits and called for the check, at which point each item is added up for the final surprise-tab. Prepare to pay about $30 to $40 per person, because the solitary blue crab hand roll is not even served until after the first three small plates, which normally consist of tuna sashimi, albacore and tuna sushi. The secret: sit there and pig out long enough to run up a high tab, and then you will get to choose what you want. I had seen a girl at the bar order to her heart’s content, and felt confused until my bar-neighbor explained that she had been there for a while (or perhaps she’s a regular). I am always fearful of incurring the unsavory uni—sea urchin—so I fabricate a tale of allergies to avoid it (lest I have to succumb the dish to my bar-neighbor, for I am sure wasting food is a definite no-no with the Nazi).

Prix Fixe Menu at Sugarfish by Nozawa

The prix fixe menu at Sugarfish by Nozawa seems less threatening; at least you get to see that for the fixed price of $22.50 (tax included), you are guaranteed a four-piece cut roll of blue crab, which tastes just as wonderful as that of its sister restaurant. So what if it comes with tuna sashimi, one piece each of yellowtail and albacore sushi, and all you wanted was the blue crab? There are also the Trust Me #2 and Trust Me #3 combos in this three-tiered menu, which simply add more items to the first level such as halibut, shrimp and toro. Thankfully for me, uni is not included in any of these offerings.

At Sushi Park, the blue crab is easier to reach—patrons may have no choice of menu items if they sit at the Omakase bar, but if they sit at a table the minimum order is four items per person. On the plus side, this means you can order four blue crab rolls, allowing for overindulgence on one item (no Nazi-esque restrictions here). Sushi Park’s rolls are also notably heftier, thicker; not so much skimming on the creamy crabmeat at this place. The rice, however, is not quite as sweet as Nozawa’s.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Curry Lobster Roll & Sushi at Social House

More Sushi in Sin City

It’s no secret that Sin City is in a constant state of flux. It seems that every year or two, a new hotel redefines the skyline, a renamed strip club appears in Private Dancer magazine’s Las Vegas directory, and, of course, another sushi bar announces its arrival.

These days, it seems the new restaurants spring open inside the hotels themselves, right in the middle of its smoky gambling halls, where you simply walk right up (hence the lack of walls or doors). The only major hassles, it seems, are parking your car and then locating the darn place through the dizzying maze of a casino.

Social House at the Treasure Island hotel and casino is one such example. The bar and dark lounge-like appearance of this chic eatery make it blend right into its surroundings, and its name seems odd at first until you find that the subheading “Sushi, Sake, Socialize” explains their intent quite simply.

I found out about this hip dining spot in the city's What’s On magazine, which touted the restaurant’s pan-Asian cuisine and talents of executive chef Joseph Elevado. Because I had no Internet access at the time, I couldn’t browse their menu—and so I called and asked the hostess to name off a few of the sushi rolls that “sounded special,” to help me determine whether the place was indeed worth a visit.

“We have the spicy tuna roll, the samon avocado roll...” she droned. I dismissed both—“Those are pretty common,” I said. “Do you have any special rolls?”

“We have the Curry Lobster roll,” she piped up, and this hooked me. She said the roll costs $20, another sign the restaurant would be of high caliber—high prices.

I fantasized about that roll for hours, since the place only opened for dinner and that was not until five in the early evening.

When it came time to be seated at long last, the hostess took me into an industrial-sized elevator that led up to the second floor of the restaurant, where the sushi bar and dining hall were located. The ambience reminded me of a tiki-themed spa, complete with giant wooden bird cages suspended from the ceilings as part of the d├ęcor.

The Curry Lobster roll was smaller than I had imagined it would be, but the sauce did not disappoint. Being tan rather than brown in color, it was surely meant a marriage with mayonnaise, diluting the overpowering essence of the seasoning with a creamier substance that always seems to pair well with maki. There is a sauce almost identical to this one at Tao inside the Venetian hotel, used on their Shrimp Tempura roll, which made me wonder if there was a transfer of chefs.

A charmingly obsequious chef named Carlos made up for his older, dour-faced counterpart, who refused to think outside the bento box when I asked that two orders of sashimi be made into nigiri instead—this was because I just could not eat that much more, but I still wanted to taste the signature sauces on two more items. Also, I didn’t want an astronomical bill that befit my gastronomical indulgences.

Carlos made it happen—and in fact he added a snappy yellow-beet-sculpture of a butterfly that I thought at first was fashioned from oshinko (pickled radish). Soon the "garlic oil-seared" scallop
(with sun dried tomato, ginger, green onion, garlic dust, Calimansi soy) and "crispy jalapeno" yellowtail (with tempura jalapeno, garlic dust, tiny cilantro, and Calimansi soy) manifested as neat and compact nigiri—not the pricey and plentiful sashimi—on my plate. Social House is also unique in that you can mix and match the sauce with the kind of seafood you want it to be paired with. In a sense, you can choose your sauces and then your fish—or vice versa.

I thought, How could I ever eat raw fish plain or with just soy sauce and wasabi…now that I have been spoiled by all these sauces???

And then I thought, Don’t think, just eat…