It’s an unbelievably warm (almost 20 degrees Celsius, can you believe it?!) and sunny Sunday here in London. The sky is a beautiful shade of blue with nary a wisp of cloud in sight. No prizes for guessing where I am at the moment, since life usually prefers to have me stuck in the lab trying to get some science-y stuff to work on most beautiful days. People are donning shades and shorts, sprawling on every possible square inch of sun-soaked grass patches, which are highly coveted commodities in London. I watched in envy as I walked past them in a hurry to come to work this morning. This seems to be a recurring theme.
So today, as I wait for another certain something to incubate, I dream of yet another unforgettable meal in New York City. My favourite way of licking my wounds.
We were very fortunate to have received personal recommendations from our well-travelled friends and family for our food itinerary in New York City. We had the most amazing and comprehensive culinary experience in NYC, thanks to them and through our own research, it seems that NYC is never short of good food. My brother-in-law wrote to us when he heard that we were going to NYC for Christmas, and insisted that we had to stuff ourselves silly at upmarket Sushi of Gari in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We were told three things: Sushi of Gari is an expensive place to eat at, it does modern Japanese cuisine and if there’s one place we have to eat at in NYC, it’s Gari. It didn’t appeal to me, the thought of having what seemed like a loosely-termed ‘modern Japanese’ meal in an ang moh city, where taste buds surely differ from the Japanese food we have come to love over the years. One may argue that the Japanese food that’s palatable to us may well be very different to what authentic Japanese cuisine should be, but that doesn’t mean that the Japanese food we think we like, is scum. I accept, and on that note, I psyched myself up for Sushi of Gari.
It was Christmas Eve, again, we made reservations at least a month before our trip, and it was a good thing we did, because the small-ish restaurant was packed to the brim. It was a bitterly cold evening, and I remember being hungry, tired, and feeling unwell from the cold. The minute we stepped into the restaurant, everything changed. Perhaps it was the heated interior, but I think it was mostly the warm and friendly staff that made us feel right at home. No snobbish, upturned noses, no snooty attitudes, no pretentious decor, even though it is a much celebrated restaurant.
One of the first things I noticed as I settled down at our table, was that the kitchen, sushi counter, reception and dining area were all run by Japanese. Also, the sushi counter is really tiny, but 6-7 chefs were working hard to churn out beautiful pieces of sushi and none of them seemed to take a break throughout our dinner. It seemed that the favourite dishes were mostly sushi. We spotted quite a couple of Japanese diners, so that reassured us on the quality of the fish. We felt like we were in good hands and we couldn’t wait to see what the fuss was all about.
As it was cold, we ordered some hot items to start, and went for the gyoza, which was tasty but nothing special, and the negimaki, which comprised scallions rolled with thinly sliced prime rib-eye steak and drizzled with teriyaki sauce. The negamaki was absolutely comforting. I love scallions, so that’s a plus point, but I have to say the thinly sliced steak was amazing. It was very moist, very tender, and had the right amount of fat in every slice. The scallions weren’t biting, they had the right amount of heat, and were sweet. The slightly savoury teriyaki sauce did well to bring the greens and meat together. I could have gone mad and ordered another portion, but it was huge and we had sushi to come.
We had gone for some classics, to compare them with those that we usually have at our favourite sushi place in London (to be reviewed soon!), such as tamago, uni, mackerel, hamachi and ikura. The fish were delightfully fresh, very very good but they were nothing special.
We also went for the Kunamoto oyster nigiri, to see how it measured up to the Peace Passage oyster sushi we had at Sushi Yasuda (reviewed here) on our first night in NYC. I have to say that even though the oyster was very fresh and very plump at Sushi of Gari, Peace Passage trumped Kunamoto. The chu-toro (medium fatty tuna) was extremely disappointing, you would have thought that paying US$11 a piece would give you well-marbled otoro, but what we had was tuna trying to be chu-toro.
I know you are beginning to wonder where the modern Japanese part was. All we had were numerous high-quality, very satisfying fresh slices of fish, a miss in the chu-toro, and nothing exciting as what was suggested to us and now to you.
We actually swooped in to inspect, what was touted by most as the hottest item at Sushi of Gari, its famous salmon nigiri with sauteed tomato and onion sauce the minute our platter was served. It looked curious, nothing like the usual nigiri we see, with a heap of tomato semi-puree sitting on top of a fat piece of salmon. We were told to have that first, as the tomato was warm, and shouldn’t be left to sit in the cold. I was very hesitant to have it, warm on cold sushi seemed very odd, and tomato with raw salmon just seemed plain awkward. I waited for M to take a bite. Doubt was very quickly replaced with a stunned expression, followed by a growing smile and finished with a huge grin when he swallowed the lump of weirdness. I took a bite. Let’s just say I was a wee bit too animated, and very involuntarily let out an inappropriately loud ‘OMG!’. It was perfect. The warm sauteed tomatoes were well-seasoned with a hint of heat and touch of salt that brought out its sweetness. Another bite revealed the most delicious onion sauce that bridged a perfect marriage between the warm tomatoes and fresh salmon. It was too good, so good that I launched into a rather embarrassing, drawn-out, hyper monologue with M on how someone could be so intuitive on flavours and so creative in putting tomatoes on salmon nigiris and how anything could taste so delicious……only to be met with agreeing, clueless silence…you get the gist of how I am when I get excited by food. It was also too good, because we had to order more portions, even though it was US$5 apiece. I blame Gari’s ingenuity for my expanding belly and empty pockets.
To add salt to the wound, we were told by the waitress that the foie gras sushi with daikon radish was phenomenal too. Biiiiiggg mistake, because I’m the biggest foie gras fan and I would disregard my cholesterol levels, expanding waistline and humanity just to have a morsel. It looked like I had to break the bank too, because it was US$11 apiece. We decided to be wise this time, and ordered only one portion of it, given the disappointment with the inappropriately expensive and pretentious chu-toro. Well, we thought we were wise, because….the foie gras sushi was so annoyingly fabulous, we wished we had ordered two!! Rich, creamy, seared to a lightly-crisp and caramelised exterior, and sooooo madly delicious with the teriyaki sauce. Because this nigiri was incredibly tasty, and could be too tasty on its own, it was ingenious of Gari to add a slice of refreshing daikon to tweak it to perfection. Oh and did I mention the foie gras was pretty damn huge?
There were hits and misses, but I owe the misses to our lack of trust in modern Japanese food. On hindsight, we should have taken the waitress’s advice to go for the original sushi items that Gari came up with, because that is what Sushi of Gari is famous for, modern Japanese flavours and its creative use of original sauces on sushi. I’ve been told to try tuna nigiri with tofu sauce amidst many other recommendations; I will and I must, when I have the chance to return to NYC.
P/S: We have experimented with the salmon nigiri with sauteed tomatoes and onion sauce in our kitchen a couple of times ever since we returned to London and we’re just about to tweak it to perfection. Hopefully, we will be able to share the recipe when it’s ready!
Sushi of Gari is located at:
402 East 78th Street New York, NY 10075