Friday, February 20, 2009

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).

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

I'm a permanent rookie when it comes to sushi. Still my goal is to someday stop going to Kaiten-zushi restaurants and refine my pallet to submit myself to Nozawa's creation.