How to Visit Japan Without Getting on a Plane

February 3, 2017

These days, the longing to leave the country is often overwhelming.  A couple days ago, after a morning spent calling elected officials to urge them to do the right thing, I needed to escape. I chose the easy way out: a little lunchtime trip to Japan.

No restaurant in New York offers a more compelling illusion of being elsewhere than Sushi Azabu. The journey begins as you make your way past the hanging black curtain and down a narrow flight of stairs; by the time you reach the bottom you are in one of those tiny subterranean Tokyo sushi bars, being greeted by a chef quietly cutting fish behind a wooden counter.

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Pick up the chopsticks and you are instantly enchanted; light and lithe, they fit happily into your hand, a subtle way of forcing you to pay attention.

You might order a lunchtime “set” – a plate of sushi followed by a shining pair of grilled red snapper collars.

IMG_9488Or you might decide to splurge on the omakase, which promises a flight of dreamlike dishes beginning with a cold appetizer.  Today it was  tiny squid tentacles in seaweed paired with a little dish of lightly pickled fish draped in shawls of onion.

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Now the warm appetizer.  This is the luxury of snow crab, the leg still snuggled into its shell and swathed in a creamy blanket of crab miso.

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A beautifully constructed platter of sashimi tells an interesting story. All the fish is imported from Japan, and while the gentle octopus is deliciously familiar, the abalone is a startling experience. Simultaneously toothy and tender, it offers a fascinating textural paradox.  IMG_9485

Another contrast of color, taste and texture.

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And finally the purity and pleasure of raw sweet shrimp.IMG_9487

The restaurant makes a point of serving uni from Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan.  This is quite different from the sea urchin found in either of America’s oceans. Here the contrast is uni from opposite ends of the island, each with its own unique flavor. The idea is to roll a bit of urchin into a crisp strip of nori, add a dab of freshly grated wasabi, give it a quick dip in soy and pop the entire package in your mouth. I could happily do that all day.

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Now the nigiri arrives, one indulgent piece of sushi after another, each superb.

Red snapperIMG_9495Scallop

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shrimpIMG_9499

tunaIMG_9496

sea eel

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Finally, a strangely irresistible tamago that resembles custard more than the customary omelet.

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I’ve missed a few dishes here: wagyu beef, lightly torched and set on a little pad of rice, a few fishes, and the tiny scoop of yuzu ice cream that is the final offering before you’re sent back up into the world.

It’s hard to climb the stairs and find yourself in the gritty snowy streets with headlines blaring from every corner. But the tang of that citrus stays on your lips, reminding you that for a little while at least, you managed to escape.

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