Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Raw and untarnished

Most of Samurai Sushi’s catches are keepers

Posted on Wed, Jan 21, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2009-01-21

Check this out: It seems that there’s another form of the dried, flaked bonito (a kind of mackerel) that’s indispensible in dashi, the Japanese equivalent of bouillon. Called ito-kezuri-katsuo, this thread-like product recalls pale, delicate wood shavings. It’s used as a garnish, and — this is the coolest part — it dances.

It’s more Busby Berkeley than Baryshnikov, but the motion is unmistakable: tiny ribbons all waving in response to the heat and steam of a plate of Seafood Dynamite. The ito-etc. also lends a faint whiff of the sea to what is an already
flavor-packed dish. Krab makes up much of the seafood, and mushrooms do bulk up the remainder, but the dish really is dynamite in an unexpected way. And it was unexpectedly good with the sherries Samurai Sushi, despite having a surprisingly extensive wine and beer list, allowed us to bring in for a $10 corkage fee.

Earlier that evening we had sampled Gonzalez Byass’s appealing Cristina Oloroso with cheeses, almonds, and the like `see Value Vino, January 14-20, for a brief sherry primer`, and on this follow-up excursion we were testing the food-worthiness of  two finos, the Lustau Solera Reserva Light Fino Sherry Garana and the Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe, in an unconventional setting. (If they worked here, they would work anywhere, we reasoned.)

Despite being produced from the same grapes and soils in sherry’s inland capital, Jerez de la Frontera, the two were stylistically very different. Where Tio Pepe was yeasty with green almond and citrus notes, the Lustau was shier, softer, and more delicate, yet with a faint whiff of petroleum — at least at first. (They had been chilled and transported in an insulated bag to keep them cold.) Both, however, were quite good with the Dynamite. It was the more assertive Tio Pepe that shone with the spicy tuna-stuffed mushrooms. The mushrooms weren’t as spicy as we might have liked, but the tempura coating was impeccable and the serving generous.

A disappointment was in store with the chicken yakitori, however — the one dish I had imagined to be a tapas-type slam dunk with sherry. Maybe with the oloroso, but the yakitori sauce was too sweet both for us and the wines, and the chicken was chewy. On to the sushi.

Stay with me in this oddball adventure: The traditional, tomago-topped lozenge of rice was thought of as the equivalent to a sherry staple, the tortilla española. The egg mixture that is cooked in layers to form tomago is different in its sweetness, of course, but the Tio Pepe handled it beautifully, while the Lustau turned almost bitter. If tomago is a sushi-chef bellwether (the more and thinner the layers of egg the better), uni is a certain test of the freshness of a sushi bar’s product.

Commonly called sea-urchin roe (it’s actually the creature’s gonads), uni at its best is firm and nutty, and Samurai’s passed with flying colors. We thought it should also work with sherry, and we were right — assuming we avoided the ubiquitous soy-wasabi mixture. The match with Tio Pepe was easy as expected, that with Lustau a little odder but maybe more rewarding. Dipping a handsome hand roll featuring smoked eel and avocado in the soy, however, brought an unconvincing sherry pairing to life. (I also recommend sampling Samurai’s beer selection, which includes Chimay, Bellhaven, and Sam Adams.)

Totally off the matchmaking matrix was this revelation: fino sherry and pickled ginger. (Mixologists take note: There’s a cocktail in there somewhere.) The lighter Lustau worked best here, but the Tio Pepe was also surprisingly amenable, and the revelation kept us occupied as we waited (and waited … ) for a Manhattan Roll to be produced. Fortunately, there was a plate of visually impressive seafood yakisoba to fill the gap.

Prettiest of all were the abundant crab claws, but they seemed to be previously frozen, and the texture made the work to get at the meat almost not worth the effort. Green-lip mussels fared far better, as did tiny bay scallops. The many shrimp were nearly neutral; noodles, of course, are a foil for the assorted flavors and essences — including those of the button mushrooms Samuri apparently favors as an umami enhancer. But the total was less than the sum of its parts. Being less picky than the persnickety critics, both sherries worked fine.

As with Rome, Manhattan apparently wasn’t built in a day, and one waitress (not our own) felt obliged to come by and explain that cutting cucumber properly to serve as the outer wrapping of this creation stuffed with tuna, yellowtail, avocado, krab, and caviar is extremely difficult. Sadly, the chef’s knife skills were taking a night off. The cucumber didn’t achieve the nearly translucent look of the seductive menu photo, and tuna seemed to be the major taste of the day; everything else was also on leave. As for sherry compatibility, I think I’d leave cucumber to Pimm’s Cup; the Tio Pepe became vegetal in its own right — though not altogether unappealingly, and the Lustau wandered off aimlessly in search of something to cling to. Perhaps we should have tried the Crunch Yum Yum roll instead.

Despite some misses, however, the exercise suggests that sherries are much more flexible with food than we often give them credit for. At around $20, ours were also relative bargains. And despite some downs, there were also several ups at Samurai: Busby Berkeley bonito, dynamite seafood, and mucho macho uni among them.

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