Gari (370 Columbus Ave.)
My initial confrontation with sushi was actually in Japan almost fifteen years ago. Although I now know there were several establishments in my Indiana home town that offered the seemingly exotic cuisine back then, I guess rice, seaweed, and raw fish weren't really in the Hawks Family culinary vocabulary, so I never knew...
I describe my first encounter with sushi in Japan as a confrontation, because that's exactly it was. And a significantly disastrous one at that...
When I was chosen for the honor of representing the United States as a youth ambassador to Japan through the U.S. Senate, not only had I never tasted Japanese food (well, other than flying chunks of flaming chicken soaring over the hibachi at Benihana), but I knew absolutely nothing about Japanese culture. So, when the Senate sent me to an intensive 4-day orientation in San Francisco prior to my flight to Tokyo, needless to say I was a bit overwhelmed. Though I was fascinated by the art of flower arranging and origami, those facets of the culture (along with etiquette) took the back burner to attempting to learn the language. As a result, when I finally landed halfway around the world, I could actually speak a fair amount of basic Japanese, but my extent of knowledge sadly ended there.
I spent the first few days in Japan in Tokyo, actually meeting with (then) Prime Minister Murayama, and observing sessions of the Diet (Japan's legislature), primarily in the Monbusho (Ministry of Education). Because I was being whirled in and out of meetings and conferences, I only really ate sandwiches and conference food... but not what I considered an authentic taste of Japanese at its best.
After Tokyo, I was flown to a small mountain village between the cities of Osaka and Kobe, which I would call home for the next three months. Directly from the airport, my host family took me to their favorite Italian restaurant. Though I hadn't paid much attention to the difference between nigiri and maki, by now I had at least psyched myself up to finally try sushi. After devouring a surprisingly delicious rendition of spaghetti carbonara (at least I was eating raw egg), we headed to their mountain home. The dinner that night would remain with me forever.
Along with pot roast and potatoes (God bless them for trying so hospitably to make me feel at home), we enjoyed a large family-style helping of chirashi (pieces of fresh fish on a large bowl of rice) garnished with dandelions. What made the meal so perplexing, however, was that we used chopsticks for both the beef and the tuna.
By the time I had figured out each family member's occupation, age, and favorite color (I dined that evening with the two sons and the mother), very few conversation topics remained that all parties could understand. So while the four of us made our initial assessments of one another and contemplated how on earth these next few months would unfold, I lobbed my potato around my plate like a hockey puck with my chopsticks. When I finally attempted to pinch it to bring it shakily to my mouth, I had apparently underestimated the strength of my chopstick muscles, for the little gravy-soaked spud went sputnik, launched from my hands, and went soaring into orbit... a course that landed it smack dab in the middle of their cream-colored leather couch nearly three feet away.
"Oh crap!" I screamed, as I jabbed my chopsticks into my rice bowl and ran to clean up the mess I had goobered. When I looked back to the table, Michiko, the mother, was running from the table sobbing, and the two boys just stared at me like I had murdered their puppy.
"Chopsticks upright in your food means death to the family," the eldest son, Toshiro, explained (he had been a foreign exchange student in Australia the year before, and spoke impeccable English, with a thick Aussie accent). Kenji, the younger brother, broke into uncontrollable guffaws.
I fortunately did recover from my terrible first impression (along with several others I will save for a later post...) Along with becoming quite skilled with a set of chopsticks, in those three months I learned a great deal about Japanese cuisine, and enjoyed fresh, exquisite sushi, the likes of which I have rarely enjoyed here in America, even in New York City.
Though it may be hard to believe, the Japanese didn't name their most popular rolls after American cities... No, a traditional Japanese menu doesn't feature Boston, Alaska, Philadelphia, or even California rolls. Don't get me wrong... rare is the day I will turn away a roll with mayonnaise and shrimp or salmon and cream cheese. But when I crave a rendition that truly reminds me of my experience in Japan, mango mozzarella chicken maki doesn't exactly hit the spot.
That's why I was particularly overjoyed a few weeks ago when I first discovered Gari, a surprisingly authentic sushi bar and Japanese restaurant on the Upper West Side. Gari is the third restaurant opened by Masatoshi "Gari" Sugio in his efforts to create a more purist dining experience, focusing on the finest, freshest ingredients, prepared with just enough flavor that drowning the sushi in soy sauce would be rendered altogether unnecessary. The result is my pick for some of the best, most authentic sushi available anywhere. It's not a place for a "fusion" enthusiast, but if you want top-quality seafood, you can't beat Gari.
While there's nothing wrong with a gourmet salmon-blueberry maki with gold leafing on top, there's something to be said for a place that needs no gimmicks or crazy garnishes. The fresh fish alone is simply fit for a king. At Gari, the sushi chefs are genuine, culinary artists who carefully construct the finest ingredients with meticulous detail. They even grind their own wasabi paste (something that is far more rare than the average sushi consumer realizes). The following is a sample of some of the exceptional tastings we enjoyed that evening.
Though we opted out of the sake route, you can't go wrong with a cold Sapporo to start the meal.
The tuna avocado appetizer with a light wasabi-soy glaze ($12)
Torchon (foie gras poached in a towel) of monkfish liver with pickled ramp daikon puree ($11)
For the indecisive diner who simply wants to try a basic, generous assortment of seafood on a bed of seasoned rice, you can't go wrong with the Chirashi ($37)
An absolutely perfect kumamoto oyster (it takes 3 years to develop the deep shell that houses this buttery, delectably garnished morsel).
Chopped fatty tuna with pickled radish ($14), and fresh salmon with sauteed tomato & sweet onion ($5)
An impressively light and sweet piece of creamy, fresh uni (sea urchin) for $7.50
Tuna with creamy tofu puree ($5)
Tuna tartar with toasted pine nuts, capers, and nori crisps (seaweed tempura)
Fresh diver scallop
For a sweet ending, you simply have to try the mille crepe... dozens of paper thin pastry pancakes layered with a delicate custard. Absolutely out-of-this-world deliciousness.