"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ushiwakamaru - January 19, 2011

The seven-year itch (and The Seven Year Itch), Seven Years in Tibet… Seven years seem like a good benchmark for understanding and revaluating a relationship and the object and the subject of such relationship. Perhaps seven years are a long enough time to burrow deeply into it, and yet, short of being too long so that it will be too late to extricate yourself. It has been seven years since, and several lives ago now, when I was first introduced to Ushiwakamaru.

When I first crossed the threshold of Ushiwkamaru, most of the hikarimono – meaning “shining fish” for the bluish glare of the skin (basically fish noted for containing much omega-3 fatty acid) – was beyond my narrow reach. In the early days of my gourmand life, tuna was gross and sea urchin was nothing more than custard with soy sauce.* Is it better to not have known so that you would not know what you are missing? Or is it worse not being able to have what you have once had? Had I never known good sushi, I would still have been content with Planet Sushi and my contentment would have been more often. However, that is contentment, not happiness. Considering the intensity of the pleasure derived from true excellence, I think chewing my lips in remembrance is still far more meaningful than living a life of ignorance.
*This is the most famous fake recipe of all times.

The key word to a long sustainable relationship, not born out of inertia but positively maintained and mutually beneficial and, even, pleasurable, is “trust.” Trust may be the most difficult human emotion: Trust takes a long time to build and yet it can be destroyed in seconds. Moreover, in order to trust, you also need to be able to respect. Now we are talking about two grave difficulties. Love, on the other hand, does not require trust or even respect; at least, self-respect is often thrown out of the window and very quickly, too. A sushi restaurant is a unique place where trust matters even more: You are face to face with the chef in such a close proximity. As much as you learn about the chef through his hands and his talk (talking technique is a required skill for sushi chef), the chef also learns about you through your likes and dislikes and your manner. The chefs hear every word you utter at the counter, even when you think he cannot hear you over the clatter. The relationship is intimate, exclusive and secretive. Hence, a great deal of trust is called for as in no other cuisines does the food arrives in your mouth in a matter of seconds, sliced and molded right in front of your eyes. There is no plate, there is no cutlery (discard your proud chopsticks – everyone can use them now) and there is no waiter; it is a one-on-one with the chef and the sushi.** Dear those empire-builders-cum-occasional-chefs, don’t you think you need go back to the beginning and start afresh?
**This type of confrontational dining style has become new and fashionable lately (e.g. Ko, The Kitchen) but this is old news. Many restaurants are small in Japan and they are often counter-only operations.

A “menu” at a sushi restaurant is meaningless. As a matter of fact, menus are unnecessary not only at sushi restaurants, but also at any good restaurants, because the availabilities of ingredients change everyday. On the other hand, due credits need to be given to consistency as it seems to be one of the hardest feat to achieve in a capricious city like New York. Therefore, at good restaurants, the specials of the day should be daring and imaginative, while the signature dishes should be stable and sturdy.

At Ushiwakamaru, the selection of fish varies by the season, the day and even the time of the day (as some glutton will randomly devour the entire stock of giant clams – namely, I – at six o’clock). If you are consulting a menu, sitting at the counter in front of the owner-chef, Hide-san, you should release those coveted seats to those that deserve because obviously you do not know what you are doing. Grab a Japanese expat to guide you through the next time. What you should do, instead of consulting the useless menu, is to entrust your palate and stomach to Hide-san for the next hour and a half. That was how he took care of me and guided me through my journey of learning.


This delicate fish was the highlight of the day for its exquisite fat and succulent flesh. The fat, upon being seared by the gas burner, had already started to melt. When it reached the mouth, the light searing of the flesh burst open to release the milky flesh and the delicate fat in a cascade. The vinegar from the rice provided the perfect counterbalance against such richness. The exterior of the rice Hide-san had gently and most carefully molded would hold firm enough for the transfer from the wooden plank to the mouth, but the interior had remained loose so that it would crumble apart upon contact to embrace the fish, and with the fish it become complete.

If you are those soy-sauce divers, please take a surreptitious and circumspective look around. No one – that is to say, no sane person – is plunging the sushi, rice-side, into the soy sauce as to waste away the gem. When you need to dip, dip lightly on the back of the fish – again, the back of the fish, not rice – so that the rice will not soak up the soy sauce like a sponge. Very often, Hide-san has already brushed soy sauce or sprinkled salt over the sushi; therefore, additional soy sauce will not only be redundant but only catastrophic to the flavor of sushi; not to mention, it is simply rude to destroy someone’s thoughtful creation right in front of the master’s eyes.


This is a fish famous in Izu, a seaside town not far from Tokyo. Kinmedai (kinme meaning golden eyes) is usually stewed in soy sauce, sake and sugar where the fattiness from the flesh merges beautifully with the heaviness of the sauce. My longstanding favorite at Ushiwakamaru, kinmedai is lightly seared to assist the release of the fat; simultaneously, however, the searing also gives the fish such a savory char. The charring also somehow makes the fish less fatty.

Not only with these seared fish but with any sushi, the true connoisseur minimizes the time between when the sushi leaves the hand of the chef to when it is safely tucked away in your mouth. Consider sushi radioactive: The sushi wastes away at an exponential rate. So, hurry.


This sleek white fish comes adorned with a sprinkle of lemon and salt – the citrusy sourness highlights the lightness of the fish. It is delightfully light and refreshing after a heavy one – e.g. sea urchin or kinmedai.

Sake no Zuke

Ushiwakamaru’s original, this soy-marinated salmon, is first marinated in soy sauce – a technique more typically applied to tuna. The ingenuity of Hide-san is after the marinade, he lightly grills the salmon so the skin becomes barely charred and chewy. Tonight’s salmon was less fatty than usual – to my liking. When this salmon sushi enters the mouth, the cool flesh of the salmon is warmed up by the body heat to release the pungent soy, while the sweetness and the acidity from the rice bring each part of the sushi into a decadent symphony of flavors and textures.


Thickly sliced, this white fish is best eaten simply. While the look of this fish is tame and lovely for the white flesh flecked with cherry, its texture is chewy and meaty and it puts up a satisfying resistance against the teeth.

Zuke Maguro

Lean tuna marinated in soy sauce is my personal preference over fresh tuna. In the process of being marinated, the quality of the flesh transforms; the tuna becomes translucent and a little sticky. The saltines, when laid on top of semi-warm rice (Hide-san’s version of sushi rice is much warmer than what is customary in Japan), yields to the warmth and becomes almost gentle.


Ushiwakamaru now gets sea urchin from Hokkaido directly. Hokkaido is Jerusalem, the Mecca, the Gandis River for uni worshippers. Think the rich, creamy, thick goo melting and running all around inside your mouth, mixed up and mixing up with the rice grains so that each grain is coated in the rich orange ovarian (didn’t you know?) goo. I wonder if drug can be this powerful.


This is one way of assessing the sushi restaurant’s idiosyncrasies: How they make their eggs. Some use ground shrimp for sweetness and texture, while some eschew additives and go solo. Some eggs are like custard, while some are like cakes. Ushiwakamaru’s eggs, stamped with their seal, are custardy and simple. On this day, it was less sweet than usual.

Toro-taku maki

You finish a course of sushi with a roll or two. My favorite is a rolled filled with macerated fatty tuna, pickled daikon and shiso – a type of herb. The fattiness of the fish is balanced by the pickled daikon and shiso – the former providing a crunch and astringent pickling juice while the latter providing an exquisite fragrance. On this particular day, the pre-made fatty tuna was too fatty, I prefer nakaochi (the meat around the spine) to be honest.

Address: 136 W Houston Street, New York, NY 10012
Phone:  (212) 228-4181

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