Sunday, July 09, 2006

For My Money New York City Entry #106 Sushi of Gari

A few days ago I had a reservation for dinner at Masa. I couldn't pull the trigger. My New York dinner adventures have dented hopes for retirement, and, even for you dear readers, I chose not to put myself on the street, begging seal-style for raw fish. With two days and counting, I canceled. A sushi banquet whose tariff would have landed on the far side of half-a-G was too lush for this working stiff.

For a sliver of Masa's charge, I could indulge in Sushi of Gari's omakase. Gari is the compact outlet for contemporary sushi on the Upper East Side. If Jewel Bako is a paragon of purity, Gari toys with the genre.

The space itself is comfortable if close. The restaurant is dominated by a sushi counter behind which five black-clad chefs labored. While one chef seemed to have greater sway, the lines of authority are not tightly drawn. During the late evening, there was little interaction with the customers. This is a restaurant where efficiency rules. Around the center space were placed some dozen small tables. The room is not startling austere or elegant, but pleasant in a somewhat nondescript fashion: black tables, flowered carpet, airy white hanging light fixtures, and the ever-present oak accents. More nice than noticeable.

Omakase at Gari is a straightforward matter. For $79, I received a dozen carefully prepared sushi. Dining solo, the meal lasted an hour. It wasn't exactly rushed, but the twelve pieces of sushi appeared together and it was time to chow down (without miso to conclude).

The quality of the fish was excellent (and the otoro exquisite), but it was the twists and turns that made the meal so filled with fun. And, for all the virtues of Japanese cuisine, playfulness is not a label that often gets attached to these repasts. (Some vegetables or fish paste in miso can appear in cunning shapes). As is proper, soy sauce is not provided, but is incorporated in the preparation (the variation is part of the taste contour of the meal).

The image below depicts the plate. Read the selections in three rows. I begin with the diagonal row nearest the front and read from upper right to lower left (three, five, and four):


1) Bluefin Tuna with Creamy Tofu Sauce. This is, in effect, the chef's amuse, waking the palate. Of all the pieces, Gari uses soy sauce most assertively with the bluefin to contrast with the creamy tofu. Simple and thrilling.

2) Red Snapper, Baby Greens, Lotus Root, and Olive Oil. Of the snappers, this was my favorite, perhaps the most glorious creation of the evening. The lotus root gave a lovely crunch, and the greens (or vinegar) had a compelling sour taste.

3) Salmon covered with sauteed tomato and onion. Here was a heated piece, almost a sushi pizza. Very rich and flavorful, a textural surprise.

4) Mackerel, Daikon, Scallion, and Caviar. This was somewhat chewy in consistency. The oily texture played off the previous fish, but this was one of the least compelling creations.

5) Golden Eye Red Snapper with toasted seaweed. A simple and rich preparation. In its simplicity it contrasted the more complex preparations that had come before.

6) Seared Salmon. Another simple presentation, and stunning in reminding me how buttery fresh fish can be.

7) Miso Marinated Grilled Yellowtail. Subtle and good. Less memorable than some other pieces, although the purity of the fish was satisfying.

8) Fatty Tuna (Otoro) with Mashed Daikon. The daikon puree was too wet for my taste. A relatively unsuccessful piece.

9) Fatty Tuna (Otoro) with Garlic and Ginger Jelly was brilliant in its contrasts. A dance of complex tastes and beautiful fish.

10) Mackerel. I missed the waitress's description, but the taste of the sauce reminded me of coffee. Whatever it was, the combination was odd, more curious than brilliant.

11) Pike Eel with Plum Sauce. I loved the slightly sweet, salty, and smoky taste of the eel and the plummy drop of red atop. Here was a traditional sushi transformed in a fashion that delighted. A treasure of the kind in which Gari specializes.

12) Snow crab. A simple, straightforward close to the dozen pieces. Although this was not the finest crab I've had, it made a sweet, pure contrast with its predecessors.

This omakase intrigued and provoked, but it was one that would have been more satisfying had pieces been served in three courses, row by row, forcing a more intense focus on each piece. One had to fight against the temptation to treat them as Sushi McNuggets. These nuggets demand consideration bite by swallow.

Negotiating the way to the washrooms reminds diners that Gari is not Masa, and, as creative as Chef Masatoshi "Gari" Sugio reveals himself to be, Chef Masayoshi "Masa" Takayama may win the battle of the Sushi Masa's (just a hunch). Yet, for my money - and it IS my money - Sushi of Gari does just fine. And as Chef Gari is my namesake, this is a lagniappe too delicious to ignore.

Sushi of Gari
402 East 78th Street (at First Avenue)
Manhattan (Upper East Side)

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