ZEN AND THE ART OF SUSHI

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Executive chef Toshio Suzuki may not be a household-name Japanese chef, but he has trained some who are, including Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. His graceful restaurant, Sushi Zen, is also rather under-the-radar, but as far as I’m concerned it’s the best Japanese restaurant in town, and I’ve dined in more than 100.
Suzuki opened his first edition of Sushi Zen in 1984. It took a few years and he had to find ways to serve sushi in more Americanized forms, with an emphasis on handrolls, but the chef was instrumental in leading New Yorkers into quite a sushi obsession, a passion that has clearly endured. In 2000, construction forced Suzuki to move to the restaurant’s current location, and he has returned to his original goal of preparing the traditional Edo-style, developed by fast-food businesses during the 1820s in Edo (now Tokyo), and Washoku, which means “the harmony of food,” an exploration of how to create the most complete taste sensations. You will quickly notice that chef Suzuki is also among the most imaginative Japanese chefs around.
Suzuki originally wanted to become a Buddhist monk, and to be sure, there is an unmistakable sense of serenity emanating from the man. Often, his entire face wraps itself into one of the most beautiful and infectious smiles I’ve ever seen. If you possibly can, arrange to sit at his small sushi bar to watch the master at work. If you’re used to frantic sushi bars, the composure behind Suzuki’s bar is quite surprising.

If possible, arrange to sit at Toshio Suzuki’s small sushi bar to watch the master  at work.

If possible, arrange to sit at Toshio Suzuki’s small sushi bar to watch the master at work.

Sushi Zen is effortlessly elegant, with the clean monochromatic lines and even lighting that characterize all the best Japanese restaurants. Suzuki’s serenity seems to run through the staff, all of whom seem utterly delighted to be at the restaurant.
Omakase runs between $120 to $250 per person, but the quality of the ingredients and the meal is so high that the expense is justified. We began with a plate called Hassun, assorted and beautifully arranged portions for two: miso-paste-marinated black cod, lightly grilled to a melting texture; “tempura fig,” with a creamy tahini sauce; smoked baby abalone, noticeably less chewy than usual; steamed monkfish liver with caviar on a little pool of ponzu sauce; and a toothsome blend of tofu paste, oyster mushrooms, shrimp and snow pea, graced with a delicate shiso leaf. All wasabi served is the real thing, not the dyed green horseradish paste that is usually offered.
A raw sea scallop wrapped in nori is as fresh and lovely as a spring sunrise. Buttery yellowtail certainly needs no soy sauce anointment. Abalone with salmon roe is finished with grated cooked egg yolk, and is as sumptuous and rich as the best beefsteak. Fatty tuna is bacon of the sea, as rich as anything I’ve ever tasted, while giant clam is a chewy slice of ocean. Fluke rolls are served wrapped in a bamboo leaf and plated over sultry monkfish liver.
For the chef’s special soup, carrot, eggplant, pumpkin, okra and burdock root are each carefully cooked according to the particular vegetable’s needs, and coddled in a kelp broth with coiled tofu skins.
Swimmingly fresh sashimi and sushi are served in quite hearty portions. Sea urchin—a mouthful of sea butter—is parked on some of the most flavorful rice I can remember tasting. Squid is cut and lightly torched for flavoring, and dusted with seaweed flakes. Live Montauk fluke has extremely subtle flavor that is abetted by a fluttering of sesame seeds. Long Island striped bass is stepped up with grated orange zest. Steamed salmon belly finds a perfect marriage in spicy miso sauce. The salmon is served with Japanese leeks and oyster mushrooms.
I had never tasted fugu, the infamous, intensely poisonous blowfish which has been the last meal for more than a few unlucky Japanese diners. Suzuki gets his from a supplier in Japan, where its poison is studiously removed. Even though there are extremely strict restrictions placed on the procuring, cleaning and preparation of fugu, and even though not one fatality has ever been reported in America, the poison is so toxic that one small slip-up could kill. The inherent danger—and tremendous expense—involved in consuming fugu lends it a certain glamour. The fish’s snowy-white flesh is delicate and fairly sweet, but there is a startling tingling sensation that lingers in the back of your throat after consuming fugu.
Bright purple cactus pear sorbet is served with spiral-cut kumquats and cubes of cantaloupe.
I always notice after a meal of sushi/sashimi that I feel better than I feel after any other meal, especially if it’s been a while since I’ve consumed it. After dining at Sushi Zen, that feeling persisted for days.
tom@hugeflavors.com

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