Sensuous Tuna Sashimi and Exceptional Rice Make Sushi-A-Go-Go a Lincoln Center Oasis

Written by Adam Heimlich on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

The food-critic
version of the music-critic game "desert island discs" goes like this:
What if you had to eat only one cuisine for the rest of your life? You’d
be outfitted with a chef skilled in the tradition of your choice, who’d
prepare every meal from your next until your last. He or she would be excellent,
and able to instantly procure any fresh ingredients your cuisine requires. But
this chef would also be incapable of any sort of fusion. There can be no Mexican
pizza, French-Vietnamese or pan-anything. No innovations that became trendy
in the last decade. The choice is among competing traditions.

If neither
health nor gastrointestinal limitations were issues, most Americans of taste
would probably choose French. But with eating, those two are always relevant,
so French cuisine’s variety and genius must be weighed against all that
butter and cream. Personally, I’d perish within a month. My selection would
be "Mediterranean" if that weren’t a "pan-," but wouldn’t
it be nicer than Italian, Spanish or Greek alone? This game is really only for
fully assimilated Americans, as it’d probably pose no challenge to people
who grew up eating, say, Brazilian tropical-fruit breakfasts, or spicy Korean
soul food.

and China’s cooking traditions are as varied and perfected-over-the-course-of-centuries
as France’s, yet not as heavy. Between those two the choice comes down,
as the game inevitably does, to imagining which would seem less tiresome 10
or 20 years from now. I suspect that all of the Asian options might threaten
monotony from the point of view of Euro-descended Americans. But when the essential
conundrum over tedium comes up, I’m always inspired to seriously consider
Japanese. An odd choice for a (so far as I know) Westerner, because so much
of the culture remains foreign or bizarre to even the most curious outsiders,
Japanese food is, mysteriously, the one kind I am always ready to eat.

Soba for
lunch, sushi for dinner, forever. Does that sound crazy? Perhaps, though I would
like to mount a supporting argument. It’s got three main points: simplicity,
quality and well-being. (A) Japanese food’s principal flavors are unadulterated,
and the cuisine’s emphasis on elegant presentation highlights purity in
a way that elevates dining to the level of religious ritual. And for believers,
religious rituals only get more satisfying with repetition. (B) It’s easy
to be a believer when a Japanese chef is working with fresh ingredients, whose
scarcity in old Japan explains their worshipful treatment today. (C) Low in
fat, almost devoid of grease, yet rich in the blessings of human endeavor and
nature, Japanese food seems to harmonize with the inner workings of human bodies.
Strange as it may seem, yours would probably run better on raw fish than on
grilled chicken. Mine does, anyway.

Now we’ll
move on to a much easier question: Where should one dine when visiting Lincoln
Center? It’s a sorry New Yorker who doesn’t make it up there now and
then, and the dining industry built around the stately event halls is pretty
sorry itself. Across Broadway from Lincoln Center are two solid blocks of very
large and periodically ultra-busy restaurants, expert at frantically shoveling
out passable cafeteria fare at fine-dining prices. Up on W. 70th St. is an appealing
bistro alternative, the McNally-founded Cafe Luxembourg–also pricey, and
no good for walk-ins. Sushi A-Go-Go arrived on this scene six months ago. Inconspicuously
squeezed into the primary preshow dining block, between Fiorello’s and
Josephina, it’s in some ways an oasis of serenity.

In another,
more obvious, way, it’s not. Sushi A-Go-Go’s cash register and host’s
stand are contained in a black go-go cage. I thought it was supposed to be a
gargantuan canary cage until I remembered the restaurant’s name. I don’t
think there are any other specific go-go references, although what sounded like
a compilation of Henry Mancini soundtrack tunes was playing when we visited,
and that might count.

The entire
north wall of the little room (it seats about 40, plus a few more at the sushi
bar) is completely covered with shiny silver and green tags, like reflective
dog tags, each held in place with a single nail, so they teeter a bit and glimmer.
On the same wall are several cartoon daisy decorations, several feet across
and bright yellow. You actually notice all this before you get a good look at
the cage, which is too big to process in the doorway, from up close. Sushi A-Go-Go’s
chairs are molded plastic, the same yellow as the daisies, and a little more
comfortable than they look.

mildly amusing or mildly irritating, the decor is in keeping with the informality
and pace a pre- or post-event meal demands. There are more than enough paper-screen
sushi joints in New York, and Sushi A-Go-Go’s take on the hip sensibilities
of Japanese culture serves to illustrate the surprising versatility of the cuisine.
What I know about Japan and its people includes more than one irreconcilable
paradox. An emphasis on decorum that doesn’t apply to soused businessmen
is one that comes to mind. (In the Japan episode of Anthony Bourdain’s
new Food Network show, the celebrity chef glossed over the contradictions. His
text went on about the respect for fish displayed in Tokyo’s market, while
the image featured a tuna salesman smoking a cigarette while carving out the
precious belly meat.) The combination of exquisite traditional recipes in a
lighthearted, cost-cutting setting, however, is not one I need explained.

A diner
preparing to take in a symphony or opera could do worse than sticking to Sushi
A-Go-Go’s selection of rolls. The restaurant’s seasoned rice is up
to par with that of the city’s best midprice sushi purveyors, and makes
for a maki that could compete at the highest levels. Sushi A-Go-Go’s rolls
are not so large that they’re unwieldy, yet better suited for two bites
than one, and dense enough to maintain structural integrity after being halved
by the first. Savor the interplay of sugar, salt and vinegar (plus sesame seeds
or fish eggs sometimes) in every ring of rice before applying soy sauce or zeroing
in on what it encircles. As appreciated as sushi is in New York, it’d be
even more so if there were more recognition of the subtle wonders of sushi rice,
which takes hours to prepare, and restaurants’ humble suggestion that patrons
restrict soy sauce usage to the fish.

of which. An Upper-West-Side engagement found us at Sushi A-Go-Go on a Sunday
night–well known to be the worst of the week for sushi, because no one
delivers fresh fish Sunday mornings. This toughest of tests the restaurant passed
easily, as if secretly prepared. Sushi A-Go-Go’s tuna sashimi, in fact,
aced it. A firm, blood-red prism of fibrous, lively protein, it rated top marks
for both consistency and flavor. That rare duality was provided less spectacularly
by the tuna nigiri (regular fish-on-riceball sushi), though a spicy-tuna maki
was the runaway champ in its category, too. Whether Sushi A-Go-Go is a tuna
specialist or we just got lucky with exceptional specimens (part of the fun
of eating sushi every day would be that every fish is different), their peppery
mayo is certainly mixed for fishes of distinction.

Our sushi
and sashimi platter for two came with four delicate slabs of that sensuous tuna
sashimi. The formidable round plate’s other surprise was a mackerel sashimi
without the slightest tinge of aged fishiness. I love mackerel better than such
a fatty, oily animal probably deserves. A friend who fishes once told me it
starts to spoil before the boat gets to shore, which I believe explains the
limited knowledge of this plentiful fish’s nobility. To me it’s the
rice-and-beans of fish, and Sushi A-Go-Go’s stout sashimi conveyed that
sense of homey sustenance well.

We appreciated
the manageable, balanced proportions of our salmon, yellowtail and fluke nigiri
pieces. The latter two were unremarkable, except for the amount of gristle in
the fluke, which is, sadly, a filler-whitefish norm. Yellowtail sashimi was
better, clean as spring water, but not tasty enough. But for the rice and the
tuna, I’d be unable to recommend Sushi A-Go-Go, because yellowtail, as
the preferred sushi of many American connoisseurs (in Japan, tuna is Lord),
is important. Salmon, another Yankee favorite, was an even bigger disappointment
after Sushi A-Go-Go’s red meat. It had the lithe texture, but was so flavorless
that if it weren’t orange, I might not have been able to guess what it
was. Could well have been just a Sunday thing.

The cold
night we visited found many patrons huddled over steaming bowls of noodles,
meat and vegetables. Sushi A-Go-Go’s menu also includes an array of non-Japanese
baked desserts for after the show, and a list of bento boxes for lunch. The
sake list has length and depth. Yet another special feature of the menu is an
unusually user-friendly array of sushi platters for under $20, including the
Go-Go–two salmon, two tuna, one yellowtail, two eel and a spicy-tuna roll
($18.50), and the Superroll Combination–one eel-cucumber, one yellowtail,
one tuna ($14.50). A la carte nigiri and maki is $2.50-$5.50 for the standards,
$6 for toro. The abundant sushi and sashimi platter for two was $38.

Our platter’s
assembler assumed a gameness regarding raw shellfish that I was pleased to verify,
enjoying sashimi sliced octopus and a trio of sweet shrimp. In the versions
served in the master-sushi realm these uncooked morsels will occupy your tastebuds
for a week. Here they were mild, moderately challenging and a bit fun. Maybe
it’s the cultured presence of Lincoln Center that makes Sushi A-Go-Go such
a smooth dealer of delicacies. There’s always something awakening about
sushi, and here, amidst shimmering walls and a kind, fashionable staff, that
alertness is not countered by the soporific trappings of exotic dining. As is
the case with visits to Fisher, Tully and the rest, when you dine near Lincoln
Center, you either bring your own capacity for enlightenment or you simply pay
full price to take a nap.

Sushi A-Go-Go,
1900 Broadway (betw. 63rd & 64th Sts.), 724-7340.