I know a few people who aren’t impressed by the Blue Ribbon restaurants, but none of them are the sort of people who spend their days thinking about what they’re going to eat next. The rest of us experience serial obsession. We go to B.R. as often as possible for months at a time, and then let the intensity dissipate naturally. When the yearning gears up again, it may be for a dish yet untried, or it may be for another taste of an early favorite off that world atlas of a menu. The Blue Ribbon operating system is designed for users who concentrate hard on what they plan to eat next.
Not much for the Soho scene, I didn’t join the cult of Blue Ribbon until they made it to Park Slope. You can’t convince me that the outerborough incarnation is not superior. In Brooklyn, the expansiveness of the founders’ vision has been fully realized. B.R. Brooklyn is a place you can walk into for a cheap and quiet twilight meal one night, and a boisterous after-midnight bistro blowout the next. The room is so festive and the service so gracious that whatever variety of dining experience you want, it’s all but guaranteed. One night, I watched a difficult patron give the Brooklyn host a hard time. The matter was settled within seconds, as if the customer’s bad vibe had been digitally erased.
When an establishment with such a high level of quality control opens a new sushi restaurant, one must try it immediately. The biggest obstacle on the way to Blue Ribbon Sushi Brooklyn is undoubtedly the restaurant next door–it’s tempting to think of B.R. Sushi Brooklyn as just another menu option at B.R. Brooklyn. One might arrive craving raw food and then, at the last minute, change from sweet shrimp and big-eye snapper to oysters and steak tartare. The lure of the older restaurant’s duck, skate wing, matzoh ball soup, shrimp provençal and pu-pu platter could prove overwhelming.
But the newcomer has allure all its own. From the sidewalk, a massive sushi bar appears as the stage, richly colorful and lit for clarity. The rafters are big timbers, as if the decor was inspired by a Japanese mountain lodge. And every table is a wooden booth, so there’s no chance of accidentally bumping elbows with a stranger while partaking of the meditative pleasures of sushi.
The menu is not quite as flabbergasting as the one next door, but it’s close. There are 20 Atlantic and 18 Pacific sushi/sashimi a la carte offerings, plus one filet mignon and one lamb, and all 40 can be used in the maki or hand rolls. They’re priced to compete with other Park Slope sushi joints, as are the sushi and sashimi platters ($11.75 to $27.50). The special-rolls menu ripples with the deluxe: an inside-out California roll with king crab ($14.50), a spicy scallop roll with smelt roe ($6.50) and the Blue Ribbon Roll, which contains half a lobster, shiso and black caviar ($16.75).
The sake and appetizer lists also stretch from staples to extravaganzas. Unfortunately, the only choice for hot sake is the house, Ozeki, which isn’t superb. Some of the starters seem to be alternative preparations of delicacies from the sushi menu. Many others–including grated mountain yam with tuna ($15.50), peppered lamb with red miso and soy sauce ($8.75) and a salad of broiled wild mushrooms with tamari butter ($8.75)–demand return trips. The night of my first visit, devoting limited resources to fancy appetizers was out of the question due to the specials menu, a bountiful list of more than a dozen more sushi/sashimi options. Several fall into the must-be-ordered-whenever-available category.
We started simply: oshitashi horenso, miso soup and shrimp shumai. The cold spinach ($3.75) was exquisite, delicately presented and seasoned. The homemade dumplings were better than dim sum fare, but no threat to New York’s best (which are served at the East Village noodle shop Soba-Ya). The soup–at $3.50, the cheapest of seven miso and/or seafood soup options–is served with bonito broth and miso paste separate, which affords a rare opportunity to sample the base of this deceptively complex dish. As much as I appreciated that, a standard $1.50 instant miso would’ve been more Blue Ribbon of them.
For the sushiphobic, there are six cooked entrees, four steamed (salmon with shiso, red snapper with plum wine, lobster with miso butter or yellowtail with eel sauce) and two broiled (eel with rice and pickles or filet mignon with enoki mushrooms), all between $19 and $25.
And now, sushiphiles, here comes the good word. The Blue Ribbon roll is fantastic. The caviar on each cut piece is the perfect complement to the chunk of lobster meat inside, and Blue Ribbon Sushi’s rice conducts the duet professionally. While the rice is dryer and harder than any other I’ve had, it gives against the teeth much like a fresh pasta. With the juicier sushi pieces, including a yellowtail that gushed some kind of Neptunian spring water, the effect was devastating.
The spicy lobster roll ($8) proves a worthy retake on the spicy-tuna-roll idea. The tuna, on the other hand, wasn’t in the top tier when I visited. The texture was on but the taste weak, and it was served a little too cold. In any sushi restaurant, the quality of a given fish will vary from week to week, if not from day to day, and these variances are more acute when the fish is shipped in from far and wide. Disappointing as the cold tuna was (and it was hardly that), there was at least a suggestion of due care. When sushi seafood isn’t caught on the same day that it’s served, that’s often the most one can expect.
A word about the service: My table had a lot of menu questions at the outset, and it wasn’t entirely clear that our waiter, not a native English speaker, was up for answering them. He was quickly and smoothly replaced by the floor captain, who provided typically superb Blue Ribbon. service. If you have trouble, ask for her.
Annoyingly, the menu doesn’t include a sashimi appetizer plate of the day. Experienced sushi diners usually order one in order to learn which fish are especially good. To get the chef’s selections at B.R.S.B., one must recruit at least one partner to chip in for a "Toshi’s Choice" entree platter, which starts at $75 for two. Recruit I did, and neither of us regretted taking the plunge.
We spotted Toshi with our platter on that stage of a sushi bar long before it got to our table. His decoration was an arching red snapper tail planted in an abalone shell, held up by a foundation of tuna sashimi and daikon radish. Like most Americans considering Japanese food presentation, I find some of the more elaborate efforts plainly bizarre. But this looked great. Heads turned as it moved across the room.
I counted approximately 16 nigiri sushi pieces and 18 sashimi. Best were an extremely clean hamachi, a sextet of broiled eel sushi that will make the packaged-eel standard unpalatable for months to come, two pieces of gorgeously marbled blue-fin tuna belly (o-toro, a special) and–the biggest surprise–stellar sardine sushi. I love sardines in any form, and these were so quietly beautiful that it was like realizing your lover looks sexier in flannel pajamas than dolled up for a ball.
The cut-up double serving of orange clam (another special) arranged on a lemon wedge was also extremely satisfying, as was the live sea urchin on the half-shell. The spiky uni (also a special, though there’s sea urchin on the regular menu as well) was from Maine, powerfully briny though not of the taste-it-for-a-week magnitude.
The unspectacular pieces were still very good. Arctic char is a firm, lusciously oily sushi fish that need not be overshadowed by its cousin salmon–our plate was none the worse for including both. Smoked yellowtail was prepared in-house with an appropriately light hand. Sea bass sashimi was as tender as that great fish can be in raw form. Spicy crab sushi and tilefish sashimi were fine, but if I’d been less discombobulated when ordering, I’d have suggested (as Toshi’s Choice customers are invited to do) some favorites that I didn’t want to leave without trying. Among these was bonito, a salty critter common on Pacific shores but hard to find around here. It was on B.R.S.B.’s special menu for only $3.25. I’ll be going back very soon.
My party finished with another rarity from the specials list: ankimo, or monkfish liver. Most fans of this gooey, mouth-coating delicacy had to try it a few times before they came to love it, as it has a peculiar taste somewhere between calves liver and tuna fat that can be a bit frightening in its longevity. Confident that the ankimo would be good, we opted to find dessert on the way home, and rode out of the restaurant on an oceanic protein high.
Blue Ribbon Sushi Brooklyn, 278 5th Ave. (betw. 1st St. & Garfield Pl.), 718-840-0408.