Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Sushi Virgins New York City Entry #85 Jewel Bako

My younger son and his friend are what we in the reviewing biz call "sushi virgins." When I learned that they would be spending spring break with me in New York, my initial question targeted dining. I didn't have profuse hopes for the response. As my older son once announced, his sib would make a great vegetarian if only he ate vegetables. He seemed to live on air, chips, Sprite, macaroni, and the odd taco. So I was startled when the response was "Japanese." Adolescents change rapidly in college, even if not all changes are comforting to parents. But never should one stare a gift squid in the mouth. After all, my son had been treasurer of his college's anime club: that should count for something!

For dinner I selected Jewel Bako. Choosing JB in the heart of the East Village was designed to demonstrate that, despite my pate (not paté), I could register on the hip-o-meter. And Jewel Bako is known as both refined and straight-forward. It is more traditional than new age sushitoriums such as Sushi of Gari, and at a price that if things went south would avoid intense pain. As their sushi is flown in from Tsukiji, I knew that our sushi would be hyper-fresh. What I had not realized that neither had ever tasted sushi, and while they were game for the experience, perhaps shabu-shabu or tempura was what had been imagined.

Jewel Bako (or Jewel Box) is exquisite. On entering one of the front rooms with their sleek vaults, one feels one has entered a piscatory cathedral, a synagogue of the seas. The arched ceiling creates a space as inspiring as any small restaurant of my acquaintance. The slate and river stones gives JB a natural serenity. Jewel Bako is not a space to canoodle, but it is precisely the place to repose while thinking wistfully and tranquilly of the object of a canoodle. And as of this week Jewel Bako has a sib, Degustation, a newly opened tapas bar, the work of the same designer and owner. They are cross-continental "Siamese" twins, conjoined at the front hall.

In our dinner, some compromises were essential. We avoided the counter. It is not only watching sausage being made that can be disconcerting. Such an education is for the next visit. With the exception of sturdy, fungal miso soup with chives and a dessert plate, we ordered only sushi. The rice served as a familiar comfort. I ordered the ten piece Chef's Omakase Sushi menu, my son's friend the eight piece selection of sushi served with a sushi roll. I ordered otoro, hamachi, salmon, and snow crab for my son. Sushi with training wheels.

We began with an amuse of eel surrounded by a bit of omelet. I was pleasantly surprised by the crunchy texture of the bite, and happy that my guests enjoyed the taste. (Their chopstick skills indicated that their experiences of Chinese food are more extensive than their knowledge of sushi).

I was served raw scallop, sea urchin, sea eel, shrimp, jack mackerel, otoro, king salmon, hamachi, fluke, and needlefish. As I could tell their preferences (salmon, for instance), some trading ensued. Most pieces were served straight-on with perhaps a band of jalapeno or a dot of hot sauce or a few sesame seeds. But most were rice, a dab of wasabi, and fish. No dipsy-doodles. Although the sushi, even the omakase, was not challenging, it was pure and fine. I particularly enjoyed the otoro (of course), the sea urchin, and the fluke. Jewel Bako serves sushi that is estimable and reputable.

The trio of desserts, in contrast, were barely passable. The chocolate mousse cake was distressingly slimy, the green tea cheesecake was dry and dense; only the lychee sorbet proved satisfying.

Although I wish that I can declare responsibility for the enslavement of two sushi addicts, such a claim must await further developments. My son ate his pieces, and two others, and decided that six pieces made a comfortable meal. His friend started strong, but during the meal looked wan, not finishing her pieces. But the time we reached my building, her distress was evident, and much of the chef's handiwork reappeared at an awkward moment. She rests as I blog.

For some, sushi is slimy and slippery and slick and unthinkable. But there must be a first time for all pleasures. As we recall.

Jewel Bako
239 East 5th Street (at Second Avenue)
Manhattan (East Village)

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