Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Dinner | Sushi of Gari

My best friend, Lisa, and I decided to go to Sushi of Gari to celebrate both of our February birthdays on Friday night. This is the original flagship restaurant of Chef Masatoshi Sugio (whose nickname is "Gari," which is Japanese for the thinly sliced ginger that is often served with sushi) located in the Upper East Side.

Sushi of Gari has a very intimate feel to it. It is a very small and intimate space, making for a classic neighborhood restaurant. We sat at the sushi bar (where I will always recommend to sit at any authentic Japanese restaurant), which had great lighting (as you will see in my photographic documentation)!

Chef Gari's philosophy at Sushi of Gari (as well as at his other restaurants) stemmed from his observations during his initial years of working in sushi restaurants--that is, how most patrons used way too much soy sauce, taking away from the succulent flavors from the raw fish at hand. As a result, he decided to "create his own brand of sauce to put directly on the sushi during the preparation stage," meaning that "customers were saved the trouble of gauging the amount of sauce needed for each piece of sushi. " Chef Gari's ultimate goal was to ensure that his patrons "would truly enjoy the taste of each sushi piece, which was prepared with the perfect amount of sauce, thereby experiencing the true taste of sushi. Having eaten at various restaurants in New York, Chef Gari was determined that he could create a variety of sauces that would go well with sushi in a similar pattern to world’s other cuisines such as French and Italian."

Probably one of my favorite parts of Sushi of Gari, this Maneki Neko (Japanese for "beckoning cat") sits on the sushi bar, greeting guests with its mysteriousness! This lucky cat is to bring luck to its owner, with a raised left paw supposedly attracts money, while a raised right paw protects it.

Here is the place setting at Sushi of Gari--very authentic and trinket-y Japanese dinnerware accessories (noting the chopstick rest, the chopstick wrapper, and tea cup).

I really liked the tea cup (I've seen it in many boutique Japanese china shops), since they had them custom made, with the Sushi of Gari logo and address on it.

Anyway, enough with background, Lisa and I went with Gari's Choice, which is the restaurant's omakase, consisting of a chef-selected sushi tasting menu with the originally created seasonal items of the day using the day's catch (i.e., a signature sample of Sushi of Gari). Since starting Four Tines, I've learned to opt for the omakase route to be able to consistently compare menus among authentic Japanese sushi restaurants. I also like that they lightly add on a drop of soy sauce on each piece of fish using a marinade brush--save me the trouble of dipping it myself and losing the fish and rice in the process. Our waitress also reminded us that it would be our responsibility to let the sushi chefs know when we were "full" or "finished" with the omakase, or else they will continue to give us more sushi! Basically, if we don't "say when," we'll have a lot of extra pieces of sushi on our hands that we'll be too full to eat!

The first piece the sushi chefs served us was the red snapper with arugula salad and fried taro. I found this piece to be a nice introductory piece, as the fried taro had a fresh, crispy crunch. The fish had a stringy texture, which somehow went with the arugula salad. A really nice mix of textures here. As I've mentioned before, I usually try to avoid wasabi at all costs, but if it's prepared at a sushi bar, I don't seem to mind it. Maybe I'm a little elitist when it comes to sushi, so much that I prefer someone seasoning it with wasabi for me, haha. But one thing to note related to wasabi, perhaps it was the way I was eating each piece of sushi, but its placement seemed asymmetrical to me. I kept catching the green zing in my mouth on the side somewhere. It wasn't a subtle transition--it was more like a Bam! Here's some wasabi when you least expect it! It didn't take away from most of the pieces we had, but sometimes it slightly overpowered the fish and its accompanying flavors. Nonetheless, I kept an open mind.

The next was the sweet shrimp ceviche, which was seasoned with the traditional citrus flavors found in ceviches. The smooth, light savoriness of the ebi (i.e., sweet shrimp) was well contrasted with the hearty crunch from the minced peppers on top.

Our first favorite of the evening, this is chopped toro (i.e., fatty tuna) with picked radish. The chopped tuna was very rich (the melt-in-your-mouth kind of way) and melded well with the finely chopped radish, which gave the sushi piece a little snappiness. We ordered this again during the course of the omakase (partially, I admit, because I was so excited for it the first time that I had eaten it before I was able to capture a shot of it on my camera).

Next, the chefs gave us miso-marinated black cod. I've been fascinated with the taste and texture of black cod ever since Lisa introduced it to me on the menu at Koi, housed at The Bryant Park Hotel. With very similar texture as with Chilean sea bass, Sushi of Gari was able to capture the same richness in the black cod. The marinade used had a very barbecue-ish mix to it, encompassing both a smoky and sweet flavor. It surprised me that there'd be a cooked item on the sushi omakase, with the exception of unagi (i.e., eel), but it was a nice interlude in between the raw pieces we had before and would have after.

Our omakase continued with seared salmon. It was as simple as it sounds--just straight up salmon, lightly seared. I feel this particular sushi piece embodies Chef Gari's philosophy that I mentioned earlier: that patrons should truly enjoy the taste of each sushi piece, which should be prepared with the perfect amount of sauce (in this case, straight soy sauce), thereby experiencing the true taste of sushi. This was one of our favorites because we could fully and truly taste the overall lingering salmon flavor. No frills--just pure flavor.

We had the yellowtail right after, topped with jalapeño sauce. The smooth texture and straight taste from the fish was shortly followed by a spicy pepper punch from the jalapeños. This was definitely my third favorite of the night, because I had never had any type of spicy or biting seasoning with any of my previous experiences with sushi (discounting wasabi, of course). Plus, yellowtail is one of favorite types of raw fish.

This was the snow crab with yuzu sauce, served with the shell! Yuzu is an Asian citrus fruit that is very aromatic and has a similar tart flavor as that of grapefruit, giving the crab some subtle citrus taste to it. The crab was prepared well, but it was a little bland for me.

Our fourth favorite of the night, the chefs served Lisa and me the tuna with tofu sauce. Tuna sashimi has never really been a top favorite of mine (with the exception of toro, hehe) but this sauce, without a doubt, takes the cake! The sauce was creamy with a mild sandiness (similar to the inside of those glutinous rice balls filled with crushed black sesame seeds) that provided synergistic flavor with the tuna sushi as it melted in our mouths. I need to get my hands on that sauce!

Another one of our favorites followed the tuna. This was the torched uni, which sounds exactly as it tasted. The uni was warm, having everything you'd wish in the perfect bite of uni--the savory umami sensation topped with a layer of smokiness from the unseen blowtorch (i.e., evidenced by the black specs on its beautiful orange appearance). Even the rice was toasted a little.

Lisa loves oysters, so this was another favorite of hers. I was wary about having this (raw oysters always sit strangely in my mouth), but in the spirit of trying new things, I gave it a go. This was the Kumamoto oyster served with caviar. It was chilly, stringy, and appropriately delectable. I was so shocked that I didn't get that watery texture and seawater-y taste that I typically get from raw bar oysters. Lisa was in love, and I was just content that it wasn't super oyster-y. Strange on my part, I know.

This one became a big hit with us, too. The salmon with sautéed tomatoes were simultaneously savory, creamy, and sweet (in a tart way). The tomatoes were warm at the center, and the salmon piece added some richness, too. In any future visit back to Sushi of Gari, this is definitely a must-order! If you're not crazy adventurous when it comes to sushi, at least give this one a try. You'll be glad you did!

Lisa and I weren't too crazy about this Japanese mackerel with pickeled shallots and shiso leaf (Japanese for perilla, sometimes called Japanese basil, which is an annual herb from the mint family). Mackerel tends to be really fishy, especially because of its oily meat. Also, it must be eaten on the day of capture, unless cured. For this reason, mackerel is the only common salt-cured sushi. In any case, we found it to be quite fishy, and the pickled shallot, served raw, was really biting in taste, adding an extra crunch to the sushi.

The third time this fish has made its appearance on Four Tines. The golden eye snapper (kinmedai in Japanese) here was served with crispy seaweed. With every bite, there was a little pop! of the seaweed against the texture of the fish. I loved the rich taste of the fish along with the crispness of the seaweed on top. I think the golden eye snapper has taken the top place as my favorite type of sushi.

As we were waiting for more pieces of sushi, we saw one of the sushi chefs pull out this massive (for what it is) piece of toro! Look at that slab of fatty tuna! There must be at least a grand worth of the delicacy sitting on the sushi counter! Amazing! Look at how beautifully pink it looks and the lines of fat! Ahhh, my mouth is watering as I'm writing this!

After a brief hiatus, the chefs returned us back on the omakase track, serving us toro with daikon radish (similar to the taste of smaller radishes, only milder) and ponzu sauce. Ponzu sauce is a citrus-based sauce made by simmering mirin (rice wine), rice vinegar, katsuobushi (i.e., dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna) flakes, and seaweed over medium heat. The liquid is then cooled and strained to remove the katsuobushi flakes. The juice from one or more of the following citrus fruits is added: yuzu, sudachi (i.e., small, round, and green Japanese fruit), daidai (Seville orange), kabosu (juicy, green fruit closely related to yuzu with the sharpness of lemon), or lemon. The Ponzu sauce gave a subtle hint of citrus flavor to the daikon radish as well as the toro. Ponzu is actually Japanese for "punch vinegar" because of all of its mixed ingredients (like a punch).

Next, we had the tempura sea eel, which used the lightest and crispiest tempura batter I've ever had in an authentic Japanese restaurant. It was very impressive! Eel was still intact--not overooked one bit. The only criticism Lisa had was that sea eel should always be grilled, not fried in tempura batter. I see her point, mainly because it seems that a sea eel's flavors are best highlighted when grilled in Japanese eel sauce (aka, kabayaki sauce). Nevertheless, the execution here was still delicious!

As our sixteenth piece, this was the seared toro with a garlic-ginger sauce. The toro's texture was lovely, except it was overpowered by the sauce, which, in the best way I could put it, tasted like greasy Chinese take-out, with a little bit of added extra class. Not a flavor I want to associate when trying to enjoy a sushi omakase dinner. The garlic-ginger flavors overpowered the whole sushi, taking away the toro's naturally rich flavors.

To make up for this, Lisa and I decided to repeat the chopped toro with pickled radish, to rid ourselves of the heavy garlic-ginger residual taste on our tongues.

I'll have to say this was my number one favorite overall. This was the broiled squid with sea urchin sauce. They mixed two of my favorite types of sushi--uni and squid! The uni created this crazy umami explosion with the broiled squid, which was warm and perfectly cooked.

We were going to stop at eighteen pieces, but the sushi chefs insisted we have one more. This last piece was chopped eel with avocado. Nothing mindblowing, but it was still delicious. It tasted like a spider sushi roll in one bite.

As a special birthday treat, the restaurant dimmed the lights and sang "Happy Birthday" to Lisa and me. It was a little bit embarrassing (probably my fault for telling them we were celebrating our birthdays), but it was fun, too. They gave us three different types of mochi: strawberry, vanilla, and green tea, served with an assortment of fruit and two candles for us birthday girls!

Me and Lisa at Sushi of Gari, celebrating our February birthdays! Happy birthday to my bestest friend--thanks for always having my back :) love ya!

Findings: Lisa and I really enjoyed what Sushi of Gari had to offer. It combined well-executed creativity, fresh fish offerings, and wonderful service. I think there are many instances of trendy Japanese restaurants like to create "fusion" dishes, which attempt to creatively combine different cuisines in a dish, resulting in something "new"--while in theory, this seems like a brilliant idea, not many places know how to successfully create something worth sharing with others. Sushi of Gari, on the other hand, does all of this very well, while keeping each signature sushi piece authentic to Japanese cuisine, in terms of flavors and ingredients. Compared to my experience at 15 East, I'd categorize Sushi of Gari in a different category. I really enjoyed both in separate ways, and I wouldn't say one was better than the other. They're entirely different. I admire Sushi of Gari's creativity, but I also enjoyed 15 East's vast variety of fish from Japan.

For anyone who is particular with their sushi selection, I would suggest letting your server and the sushi chefs know which types you do not prefer, which ingredients you'd like to stray away from, etc. They are very accommodating, and I absolutely love the neighborhood feel of Sushi of Gari. It is not very tourist-y or super trendy--just straight up creatively thought-out sushi offerings, all originals of Chef Gari himself. There is a lovely, understated quality to the restaurant--my favorite kind of place! The service is wonderful--our waitress had such a friendly and happy demeanor, which in turn made Lisa and I even more excited to be there to celebrate our birthdays.

My last suggestion is to try to be adventurous as possible at Sushi of Gari--it may surprise you the sauces Chef Gari created specifically for particular types of sushi and how well it fuses with the fish's flavor. Also, here are the pieces you MUST order if you ever decide to make reservations at Sushi of Gari: (1) salmon with sautéed tomatoes, (2) golden eye snapper with crispy seaweed, (3) torched uni, (4) chopped toro with picked radish, (5) broiled squid with sea urchin sauce, and (6) tuna with tofu sauce.

Price point: $283 for a sushi omakase of 19 pieces for two, selected by the sushi chefs.

--February 25, 2011

Sushi of Gari
402 East 78th Street
New York, NY 10075

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