The morning of September 11, 2001, I was living in Los Angeles. I didn’t have a TV or the internet, but I did have a small Nokia cell phone. When I saw that my company’s administrative assistant left me a voicemail at 6:30 AM, I knew something was wrong.
She, like many who’ve spent their entire life on the west coast, forgot that New York is not just a city, but a pretty large state. So, when I heard her frantic voice asking me if my family (who lived in Syracuse) was okay, because “she heard what happened”, I was completely confused. I immediately picked up the phone and called my semi-elderly father at his furniture shop.
“Dad, did something happen?”
“Yeah, they bombed the White House.”
Eventually, I figured out what had happened, watching the news at my friend’s place down the street. For the first few weeks after that horrific day, it seemed like the world would never be the same. I was working for a film production company on a studio lot, and one of the first business decisions we made post 9/11 was to let go of a script we had in development called Snakes on a Plane.
We abandoned the project because we couldn’t envision a world where it would ever be okay to make a movie about people being trapped on a plane with snakes. I didn’t really care too much for that story, anyway. To be honest, I was more concerned that in just a couple weeks I was scheduled to fly to Tokyo for work. How could I bring myself to board a flight?
But I, like many others, went back to my daily routine, and before long I was in Tokyo. And to my surprise, it was truly challenging to get around using English — especially when trying to get a meal. I didn’t have much of an adventurous palate back then, and I couldn’t find a single menu in English. At one point, I bought what I thought was an ice cream sundae from a street vendor, but when I took a bite I realized it was some sort of octopus custard with fermented fish flakes. Later, I went to a swanky restaurant, and after a few minutes of getting nowhere with the waiter, I just randomly pointed at an item on the menu. A few minutes later I was presented with my meal: Beef jerky. On a plate. With chopsticks.
Eventually I walked past a restaurant that had sushi going around a conveyor belt. Raw fish had always sounded gross to me, but at least here I could actually see what I was ordering. To my surprise, I loved it. When I got back to LA, where sushi had been a culinary icon for years, I could not get enough. Sushi felt like perfect Angelino food: beautiful, deceivingly simple, and light — my favorite was albacore served with ponzu and scallions. I vividly remember my last meal living in Los Angeles: It was at Nishimura, a beautiful space where guests entered through a garden. Walking in that evening, you could smell the jasmine permeating the warm air — a quintessential LA sunset radiating Lakers colors above.
Living in New York was a hard adjustment. The scent of jasmine had been replaced by urine, and beautiful sunsets were so rare that the two times a year they are known to occur have been coined Manhattanhenge. And, while New York did — and does — have some of the world’s best food, its sushi in 2006, quite frankly, sucked. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few high-end places that served outstanding renditions, but those were special-occasion-type places. Oh, and Albacore? Turns out that is a strictly Southern California delicacy.
Slowly this began to change. A string of very good sushi restaurants opened up between 2005-2010. 15 East, Masa, and Soto were all restaurants that could rival the best in LA. It looked like NYC might actually be developing something of a sushi culture. Then the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi came out, and all hell broke loose.
I first saw Jiro Dreams of Sushi in an independent theatre when trying to determine where to eat for an upcoming second trip to Japan. By this point, I had really delved into the ingredients and techniques employed with sushi — even making it myself — so for me this trip was largely about food. Our time was limited, so deciding on which three places to eat was agonizing. Two establishments, Mizutani and Saito, were no brainers for me. What I could not decide was whether to go to Sushiyabaki Jiro or a tiny, decades old, relatively under-the-radar place called Kikuyoshi. Jiro Dreams, which had not yet been released on Netflix, certainly enticed me to go with the former.
But, still, it felt like Kikuyoshi was beckoning. I had only heard of the 8-seat counter-only establishment because its chef, Kikuo Shimizu, wrote a book published in English called “Edomae Sushi.” This octogenarian’s devotion to his craft and respect for tradition reminded me in so many ways of my father. It was a tough call, but I chose Kikuyoshi.
None of these reservations were going to be easy to get, so I booked a room at a much nicer hotel than I would normally choose, confident that its concierge team could get me in. Indeed, within days, I received an email that they had booked all of my requests except one. Chef Shimizu of Kikuyoshi said that they do not accept non-Japanese patrons. I pleaded to the concierge, explaining how much I had been looking forward to dining there and why, and the next day he was happy to inform me that the Chef agreed to welcome us.
When we arrived at the tiny but beautiful space, we were seated next to a group of four Japanese diners who explained they had been coming here four times a year (once each season) for over a decade, and that everyone was excited for Sandy and I to be there. They clarified that the chef doesn’t accept non-Japanese guests because he speaks no English, which can make the experience quite frustrating for all. But, when the concierge articulated our case, he made an exception and asked his English-speaking son-in-law to come in and translate for us. However, he eventually realized that this bi-lingual group had a reservation on the same night, so he instead asked them to take care of us.
And that’s exactly what they did. After several rounds of amazing, hyper-traditional sushi, and advice on how to navigate Tjukiji fish market, I took out my copy of Edomae Sushi for the chef to sign. A huge smile immediately beamed across his face. He flipped through the book, humbled and proud to see his work presented in these foreign characters. He eagerly signed it, at the end of the night, gave us two artisan-made ceramic sake cups to take home as a gesture of hospitality.
By the time we got back to the states, Jiro Dreams of Sushi had become an international sensation. Suddenly, expensive sushi restaurants had popped up all over the city, my long-beloved sea urchin was the new caviar, and the word omakase, or “chef’s choice,” now appeared to be Japanese for “Power Lunch.” Forgive me if I sound like a teenage emo kid who suddenly found his favorite band on Total Request Live, but I find this to be a huge turnoff. And I’m not alone here. Even more frustrating was that NYC’s new obsession with sushi hasn’t really trickled down. While there is now no shortage of world-class sushi to be found in NYC, there are still scant options in the middle and lower ends.
Going into the whole Covid situation, it had been quite a while since I’d had sushi. But, eventually I grew tired of parmesan cheese, so I dug up some of my old equipment, brushed up on my technique, and made sushi for the first time in almost a decade.
One of the many things I love about Japanese food is that it’s often so beautiful and stylish in an irresistibly minimalist way. And, the same goes for making it. I’ve always fetishized a sushi chef’s mise en place. This french phrase, which means “set in place” and refers to a cook’s prep station, has become a household word due to shows like Top Chef. But I think an equally important concept here is another French term, mise en scene. This expression, used mostly in film and theatre, refers to the visual arrangement of everything on the stage.
The first course we had has long been a favorite of ours: the signature uni cocktail from the West Village restaurant Soto, which closed a few years ago. It consists simply of pristine uni, fresh wasabi, and soy reduction with shredded nori.
Second was my dearly beloved albacore with ponzu. I was unable to procure fresh Yuzu, or even bottled yuzu juice, during the pandemic, but I did have some yuzu olive oil from our trip to Menton last summer. So, while olive oil is definitely not part of Ponzu, it did its job here.
Then it was on to Nigiri, or hand-formed sushi. I served hamachi three ways: with wasabi and nikri (a sauce made from soy and reduced sake); with umeboshi (pickled plum), and a third way with yuzu kosho, which is a yuzu zest/chile pepper paste. This was a nod to our past, as Sandy and I first had umeboshi when we celebrated our 6 month dating anniversary at 15 east. No, that’s not a typo. 6 Months. You see what I’m dealing with? We followed this with a round of uni gunkan (battleship) sushi.
I generally don’t order rolls, having a strong preference for nigiri. I think the last time I ordered anything more than a negi-toro (scallion-tuna belly) roll was on my second date with Sandy. And even that was, in all honesty, to save money. I was still in grad school, and rolls tend to be the better value — even if it meant sucking it up and eating a Philadelphia cream cheese dragon roll, or whatever the hell it was we ordered that night. I will say, however, that a well crafted negi-toro roll can be transcending. So, that’s what I made this evening to end the fish portion of our dinner.
Our last savory course was A5 Mizayaki Wagyu beef, seared and served with freshly grated wasabi and ponzu. This was a real treat because it employed two very special ingredients. 99% of wasabi is actually just colored horseradish — the real stuff is virtually impossible to find. Similarly, until just a few years ago authentic Wagyu was not allowed into the U.S. Most “Wagyu” in the United States is actually Washugyu, an American Angus-Wagyu hybrid.
For dessert, I stuck with the umeboshi theme by making a charred milk ice cream with homemade strawberry umeboshi. I had actually started curing these berries over a year ago, and they got better with time. This is a very interesting recipe that involves my going outside to the street, using a blowtorch to light a piece of charcoal held by tongs, and then dipping the red-hot charcoal into a mixing bowl full of cream, milk, and sugar. I kinda feel like a suspected terrorist when I do this, but it’s really a delicious dessert, reminiscent of marshmallows roasted over a campfire.
That first trip to Japan seems like ages ago; and, in a way, it was. But, if you think back towards the fall of 2001, did the world really become that different over the following 18 years? Sure, flying is a much more frustrating experience than it ever was, and you never used to see cops with machine guns at Grand Central, but, at the end of the day, the way most of us live our lives — despite some geopolitical changes — is essentially the same. Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but I am hoping that our experience with this horrible pandemic ends up producing similar results. After all, it was only a few years before another studio produced Snakes on a Plane.
The Japanese have a saying: even when months and days are long, life is short. So, I hope that all of my friends, family, and any persons reading this blog are making the most of this unfortunate situation. Be safe and eat well.