Returned to Sushi Yasuda last week. At the bar, of course. Struck again by the minimalist décor. Matches the perfect sushi. Shining bamboo walls, no music, modern, without being rigid. Friendly.
The Times’ recent three-star review prompted this post in which we concur with Eric Asimov, who barely kept from sobbing at Yasuda. It’s that good. What inspires tears is worth analyzing. I think it has something to do with an unalloyed, communal tie to the food. The distance between food and mouth evaporates: the fish is precisely as it was meant to be and tastes as if it were just plucked from the sea. The rice is equally faithful and so lightly sculpted, you’d swear it sprouts, ball-shaped, from the ground.
First a word on the meal. Thin, fried prawns dusted with green tea powder. Then on to the main event. All sushi-no sashimi here-it’s an insult not to order such perfect rice. Sliced sea scallop sprinkled with a few grains of crunchy sea salt. Cubes of lightly seasoned eel (from 2 sources, of course, as is most of the fish here), again topped with that salt. Creamy uni, impossibly al dente squid legs, unctuous Tasmanian salmon and white salmon, kampachi, fluke, toro, shredded, oceany king crab.
And the salmon roe hand roll. The most delicious 3 bites I’ve ever tasted, a healthy scoop of the eggs deftly seasoned and rolled in a strip of toasted nori. Think a poached egg minus its annoying white, sitting on a shaved sliver of toast, crunchy sea salt on top. Omakase-style, the fish is molded and handed to you, again cementing the spiritual connection between eater and eaten.
The Yasuda experience is, of course, an illusion, and like all illusions, a momentary escape from daily existence. Yet it’s an entirely different illusion than the one you might have, say, at a luxurious restaurant or resort. The food, not the shine, is the thing. A beautiful space, yes, but nighttime view of Central Park or gleaming flatware no.
Mere luxury is a product of effort: architects, tailors, vendors, glass blowers, painters, interior designers, web site designers, etc. In contrast, the sushi at Yasuda seems effortless: a drop of seasoned vinegar, a sparse slice of fish, a halved scallop, a sheet of nori lightly crisped over a flame.
It all seems so simple, and yet, of course, decades of training go into this work. The chefs wash rice for years before being allowed to touch the fish. And this is the illusion that caps the Yasuda experience, the elegant simplicity of it all.
Back on planet Earth, I’m reminded of watching a Jets game with a certain unnamed relative whose gift is yelling at the tv: “How could you miss that?” “I could catch that thing”, reacting to a play which would require an inhuman acrobatic gift.
But I get what he’s saying: the ball hovers in the air, just begging to be plucked by anyone with even a fair amount of skill, something we used to do as kids. It seems so simple and attainable. Like reaching out for a piece of fish and rice at Sushi Yasuda. But it’s just an illusion.
What’s not an illusion is that salmon roe hand roll, for which I’ll sketch out a recipe based on Hiroko Shimbo’s fantastic book The Japanese Kitchen.
(NOTE: you may have had a salmon roe in hand roll or just maki (roll) form. Yasuda’s hand roll is unparalleled, but I won’t pretend to be an expert in rolling sushi. I think I tossed our bamboo mat a few years back. We did have one day of it in cooking school, and I want my money back. Anyhow, in keeping with the purity of Yasuda, a nori-less roll is appropriate here; simple, seasoned rice with a healthy dollop of the roe. Cooking sushi rice properly, as you may know, is a learned labor, beaten into the apprentice. Don’t sweat it. As long as you follow three rules, you’ll have a decent product: wet your hands constantly so it doesn’t stick; don’t overwork the rice when mixing with the seasoning; don’t pack it into a knobby ball of paste. The grains should be loose. However, with this recipe, as you don’t have the assistance of nori, feel free to press a bit more than you ideally might. Also in this ideal world, you’d have a hangawi, or wide wooden sushi rice tub, sitting around. (And a few wooden paddles and special fan). If not, dump into a ceramic (plastic’s okay) bowl and use wooden spoons. Be delicate.)
Salmon Roe Sushi
Makes about 20 pieces with leftover rice
1 ½ cups sushi rice
1 ¾ cups water
4 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 ½ tablespoons sugar
2 ½ teaspoons salt
4oz salmon roe
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds
- Rinse the rice several times in a large bowl until the water is not cloudy. Add to a colander and let drain for an hour.
- Twenty minutes before cooking, combine the vinegar, sugar, and salt in a small bowl and whisk to dissolve. Reserve.
- Add the drained rice and water to a medium pot. Place over medium heat uncovered and simmer until the water is just above the level of the rice (10 minutes or so but keep an eye on it-the pot size makes a difference).
- Reduce to a very low simmer, cover the pot until cooked, about another 10 minutes.
- Transfer the rice to a ceramic bowl (see note above), and drizzle the seasoned vinegar on top in a circular motion. Using a wooden spoon mix thoroughly by cutting through the rice and folding from bottom to top, soufflé-style. Standard vigorous mixing will toughen the rice and you’d have to start all over.
- When mixed, shape in a mound in the center of the bowl, cover with a damp towel till ready to use. It can be made in the morning, stored in an airtight container and used at night. Don’t refrigerate.
- To serve, wet your hands (see above note), grab a small handful (about ping-pong ball size) of rice and gently form into sushi shape (small football, if you will). Squeeze as little as possible, just enough so that it stays together.
- Spoon a healthy sized (mounded teaspoon) of roe down the center, sprinkle lightly with a few sesame seeds. Repeat until you’re out of roe. Arrange on a platter. Serve.