Fresh, raw, no cream cheese

Many butts have burnished the
vinyl-clad swivel chairs at Niki’s sushi bar. I lost my San Antonio sushi innocence many uni ago in one of them, and I wouldn’t have them replaced for the world. Yes, the carpet could use changing again, and the bathrooms need updating. But Niki’s has never been about décor, so get over it. The sushi and sashimi are impeccable, I was reminded after an absence of several years, and that’s what’s really important. Patrick is as snarkily humorous as ever. Sugako is still behind the counter. Metallic mackerel sliced with lapidary precision shimmers on a platter … and all’s right with the world. 

Before embarking on an orgy of fish in many forms, we were served cucumber and tako (octopus) salad, and it was good. Some tempura appeared: tiny Japanese chilies from Partick’s garden, long beans, sliced squash. Even better was a Japanese noodle soup of Chinese origin called champon. “Ramen that’s died and gone to heaven,” quipped Patrick. And heavenly it
was, brimming with noodles, shrimp, scallion, carrot, cabbage, mushrooms, and more in a milky broth studded with tiny pork meatballs.  

“Maybe some fried whole fish?” Sure, why not. This was obviously going to be a prodigal return of sorts, so resistance appeared futile. Mangrove snapper, smaller than the open-sea sort, was about 10 inches of very flaky, very white-fleshed fish topped with a tangle of shredded carrot, onion, and scallion. Picked apart with chopsticks and dipped in a tart ponzu mix, it was superb. And it was not the last time we’d see the unfamiliar creature. 

“Bring us a couple of platters of sashimi and sushi — whatever’s freshest,” we boldly ventured. It is rarely a mistake to put yourself in the hands of a sushi master. Or mistress, in this case. And our trust was not betrayed by the sashimi that appeared to unanimous gasps of appreciation. Another juvenile snapper, stripped of most flesh save head and tail, anchored the platter in a graceful curve sustained by strategic blocks of daikon; more of same, shredded, disguised the fish’s surgically removed center. The pale, sliced snapper was part of a platter that also boasted slabs of glistening toro and maguro, slivers of octopus and sweet-flavored crab claw, pasta-shaped shreds of squid sprinkled with salmon roe, and morsels of the mackerel. We could happily have stopped there. 

But then we would have missed the art embodied in the nigirizushi. Nigiri means pressed in the hand, and most of the components of this second dish had been constructed atop lozenges of pressed, vinegared rice spread with a thin layer of wasabi paste. The more delicate fish also received an additional boost in the form of a strip of shiso leaf  placed atop the paste — a minty surprise hidden beneath the hamachi, but not deemed necessary for the more robust tuna. Served on a separate plate, small sections of mackerel sat atop their steeds of rice like so many helmeted warriors. 

At this point the critic is duty-bound to point out the following: We are all accustomed to dipping our sushi in the mix of soy and wasabi paste we have gone to lengths to get just right — but it’s more often than not unnecessary. In fact, dipping can obscure the clean, fresh flavors of a perfectly composed piece of nigirizushi. I don’t really expect you to stop doing it; I often find myself dipping reflexively — though, for reasons of control, without the aid of chopsticks. And the sauce seems to work just fine with nori-wrapped maki, always a joy to see with their mosaic-like cross sections. But, please, don’t do it to the uni. Constrained within a rim of toasted seaweed, fresh sea-urchin roe (and it should never be eaten if it’s not pristine) is delicate, nutty, and custard-like, and it needs no disguising by overzealous applications of salty soy and fiery

Saving it for last, we thought of the creamy uni almost as dessert, but Patrick had other ideas: From his own tree came halved persimmons. Perfect evocations of autumn, they were luminous, luscious, and in need of nothing. 

P.S. No cream cheese was harmed in the making of this meal. No ridiculous rolls were consumed, either. •

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