Like the polar bear, the groundhog, and other creatures of the wild, professional eaters have internal barometers, delicately calibrated to different times of the year. For food professionals, winter is the time for hearty foods, for steamy fish stews, rashers of bacon, and platter upon platter of broiled meats. This winter, though, the seasonal mania for eating large seems to have spun out of control. As restaurateurs stumble over themselves to produce ever-larger (and better-publicized) beefburgers and blizzards of comforting rib chops, even the most seasoned leather-bellies are having trouble keeping up. Which may be why I was so relieved to find myself sitting, the other evening, at the bar at Sushi Seki, with a group of local sushi hounds, silently eyeballing radiant slabs of ika and o-toro and sipping chastely at a cup of green tea.
Sushi hounds are not seasonal eaters, I’ve noticed, and like most hard-core addicts, they seem impervious to economic downturns. They are territorial and finicky in their habits (like polar bears), they tend to feed singly or in tiny groups (also like polar bears), and when something meets their approval, they return to it again and again. For several months now, that’s been the case at Sushi Seki, where on many nights, the small sushi bar is cluttered with reserve signs until well after 9 p.m. The establishment, on 62nd Street and First Avenue, is poky and not very well appointedthe lighting’s dim, and on one of my visits, the carpets smelled of old turpentine. It had a similar following for many years when it was called Sushi Hatsu, but the old restaurant closed for a month, the original chef returned to Japan last July, and when it reopened, it was with the eponymous Mr. Seki behind the bar.
Seki is a tall gentleman with wide cheekbones and the formal, almost dour manner common among many first-class sushi chefs. For several years, he worked with the city’s most inventive sushi master, “Gari” Masatoshi, at Sushi of Gari, and he has brought many of the sensei’s tricks with him. The first item I sampled was a collection of tekka maki rolls called Three Golden Flowers, and it was no surprise, after I put in my order, to see chef Seki pull out a butane blowtorch (a favorite Gari implement) and begin singeing slices of raw tomato. The burnt tomato turned out to be the skin for a roll filled with sake-marinated salmon and crunchy little pockets of shiso leaf. Another maki contained deposits of spicy tuna flecked with sesame seeds, and then there was an exotically delicious combination of (from the outside layer toward the center) soft avocado, garlic-flavored hamachi, and jalapeño.
Not surprisingly, jalapeño is also one of the favored seasonings at Sushi of Garialthough its presence drew a very strong reaction from my father, a traditionalist in sushi, as in most things. “What’s this jalapeño thing doing on my hamachi?” he exclaimed as the components of Seki’s lavish omakase menu began to appear. The jalapeño, it soon became clear, added a complementary kick to the natural sweetness of the yellowtail. Ditto the white, faintly creamy tofu sauce, which Seki paints on little mounds of tuna. You’ll find the same item on the menu at Sushi of Gari, which shouldn’t necessarily diminish either its culinary impact or your dining pleasure. The same goes for more standard sushi items like toasted anago (sea eel); the thick semi-sweet egg tamago, which the chef makes daily in-house; and a deliciously fragile mash of unagi (lake eel), which Seki grinds up with crunchy cucumbers, folds with sesame seeds, and balances on a little tray of fresh avocado.
The chef’s basic omakase starts at $40. But if you’re in a spending mood, you can give him a rough figure and he’ll whip up an appropriate spread. You can have it delivered on an elaborate golden platter if you choose, or, if you’re sitting at the bar, he’ll serve it to you personally, dish by dish, in civilized little segments. My own personal feast included bits of lightly seared bonito garnished with a light garlic sauce, with tiny shavings of shiso on top. After that came a fine example of chu-toro (No. 2 on the sushi-snob toro scale, above maguro and below the hyperdelicate o-toro), which Seki flavored with a mild wasabi sauce. It was followed by an odd, less appetizing concoction made of chewy giant clams and pats of strangely gamy monkfish liver, then tiny fried oysters dipped in sweet miso sauce, and finally squares of marinated, slightly burnt-tasting eggplant covered in bonito flakes, which dissolved like salty shavings of ice when I put them in my mouth.
Through his intermediaries, the chef asked that we not soil these mostly delicious creations with soy sauce, but apparently copious amounts of sake are okay. The night I visited, there were fourteen varieties on the menu, from fourteen different prefectures in Japan, of which a brand called Harushika from Nara was the bestand the most expensive. You can sip your Harushika with a whole roster of standard and generally unimaginative Japanese dishes. The tempura I sampled could have been served at any one of a hundred Japanese restaurants in town, the beef negimaki (marinated beef rolled around scallions) seemed chewy, and the ubiquitous miso-marinated black cod was tasteful and sweet but a little soupy. The sashimi was on a par with the sushi, however, and the platter I tried contained tiny kumamoto oysters touched with vinegar and scallions, portions of New Zealand king salmon marinated in sake, and, for bold eaters, crunchy octopus suckers the size of cough drops.
Dessert, an afterthought at many Japanese restaurants, is an afterthought here too. So do what I did and order a single portion of Seki’s highest-grade o-toro ($8 per piece). It has the melty texture of soft chocolate and is richer by far than any canned version of green-tea ice cream.