In the Baszile / Parker house, Fridays mean sushi. We usually order from the place around the corner and have it delivered. We call with such regularity, the owners recognize our voices. “Is this Parker on 6th Avenue?” they ask. Once, after a long flight from the east coast, we called from the airport–while we waited for our bags in baggage claim. It was almost 10 o’clock–closing time–but the owners stayed open until we got there almost an hour later.
This past Friday, we interrupted our normal routine and went for sushi across the park at a place called Ebisu. It’s a popular spot but they don’t take reservations, so if you want to sit at the bar you have to get there when they open at 5:00 p.m. We arrived closer to 6:00, but still managed to beat the rush. A short twenty-minute wait and we slid into three chairs at the bar then introduced ourselves to the chef.
If eating sushi could be compared to skiing, I’d be a solid advanced-intermediate. I’m quite comfortable on the blue runs and will try the occasional black diamond, but let’s not get crazy. Rainbow, caterpillar or shrimp tempura rolls are my standard go-to choices. Add unagi negiri (eel) and a couple pieces of yellow tail or amberjack sashimi and I’m good to go. But last Friday, I was with WP and Sweetpea who take sushi eating to a whole new level.
“Omakase” is a Japanese phrase which means “I’ll leave it to you,” and it’s what WP and Sweetpea said when our sushi chef asked what we’d like to order. The chef smiled. “Ah, very good.” He nodded in my direction as he gently pinched and squeezed a clump of rice into a tight rectangular dome. “And you?” A chalkboard hung on the walk behind the sushi counter announcing the day’s specials. The lobster roll and something called the “XXX Roll” had already caught my eye and I was salivating, imagining the flavors. “I’ll start with Amberjack and Yellowtail,” I said. I looked at WP and Sweetpea. They glanced at each other and rolled their eyes. WP leaned toward the chef and said something I couldn’t quite hear, but judging from the chef’s expression, it was probably something like, “She’s a lightweight.”
The chef nodded. “I urge you to try the yellowtail. It’s very good. The amberjack . . .?” He made a face. “But I will prepare the yellowtail my way. You will be happy.”
WP and Sweetpea grinned.
A few minutes later, the chef laid three pieces of yellowtail sushi on the counter. Each piece was topped with a tiny pile of what looked to be yellowtail tartar. “No soy sauce,” said the chef. “Eat it as it is.”
I put whole piece in my mouth . . .
I’ve had good sushi before. All I can tell you is that after I ate that piece of yellowtail, everything changed. To say that the flavor was delicate, to describe it as merely fresh doesn’t do the experience justice. It was perfect. That’s all I can say. No soy sauce. No ginger. Just rice and fish. “Okay,” I said. “Omakase.”
If you’ve ever ridden a mountain bike down a narrow trail or navigated the backwoods on one of those three-wheel ATVs, you know the sensation I’m trying to describe. At some point you realize that the best thing you can do is relax your shoulders and not grip the handle bars too tightly. That’s what I experienced for the next hour as I allowed the chef to prepare our meal: Wafer-thin slices of mackerel, which has the reputation for tasting “fishy” but which, in our chef’s hands, was sweet and tasted only of the sea, served with the actual mackerel skeleton pulled into a bow-shape so that it looked like a small sailing ship. In the next course, the chef presented the same mackerel skeleton–deep fried to a delicate crispiness–which we somehow managed to break into pieces and eat without a single bone sticking in our throats. Next came the live sea scallop pictured above, served on its own shell with a wedge of lemon and a mysterious hot and spicy dipping sauce. Delicious. Then it was on to the blue fin tuna belly–rich and meaty–that looked like a small slab of raw Kobe beef. It was so buttery, I could hardly believe it was a fish at all. Next came some kind of fish liver, cooked to the consistency of foie gras, followed by a hand roll of another kind of tuna (I think) gently tossed in some kind of mayo and served with rice, daikon sprouts and egg roe. Three decadent courses in a row. A little challenging, but ultimately delicious.
Before I go on, I have to remind you that I began this post with the honest admission: I’m perfectly happy with my status as an advanced-intermediate skier. Only occasionally do I feel the need to challenge myself with black diamond runs and when I take the chance, the conditions have to be pretty perfect: good visibility, powdery snow, just enough moguls to make it interesting but not so many that I blow out my knees. If I ski a black diamond run, I prefer that it not be my last run of the day because if I wipe out, I don’t want to leave the slopes with that as my strongest memory.
So I have to wonder what I was thinking when I saw what the chef had prepared for our last course. Let me digress. The one thing I told the chef when I sat down at the bar was that I did not care for sea urchin. Let me repeat that. To be precise, I said: I DO NOT CARE FOR SEA URCHIN. NOT IN A HOUSE, NOT WITH A MOUSE, NOT IN A CAR, NOT IN A BAR. I DO NOT LIKE SEA URCHIN OR GREEN EGGS AND HAM. I DO NOT LIKE IT SAM I AM!!! I don’t like the way it looks; I don’t like the texture; I don’t like the way it feels in my mouth.
So I probably should have said something when I head the chef say, “For your last course, I will prepare sea urchin.” But did I? NO! because I was already on the ride. My hands were strapped to the handle bars and there was no turning back. I’d said the magic word, “Omakase,” and I didn’t want insult the man.
You may recall a previous post from a couple summers ago about my frogging adventure in the Franklin Canal. It was all fine and good until it was my turn to grab the frog and then I totally chickened out. I just couldn’t do it. That was the memory that played through my mind when the chef laid the last course in front of me. It was an oyster shell filled with a raw oyster, a generous dollop of glistening red egg roe, a tiny raw quail egg, Yes A RAW QUAIL EGG, and–if those three ingredients weren’t gooey and slippery enough–THREE slices of sea urchin. I stared at my plate and tried to swallow as the last three courses rose up into my throat. I looked up to see WP and Sweetpea staring at me.
“You gotta do it,” Sweetpea said with a shit-eating grin on her face.
“You can’t turn back now,” WP said, looking smug and satisfied.
“Eat it in one bite,” said the chef. “But don’t just swallow. You must chew.”
So I did. I grabbed that fucking oyster shell, held it to my lips, and tried not to think about what would happen next. I opened my mouth and felt the whole God-awful-slippery-slimy-stomach-turning-vomit-inducing combination slide onto my tongue. I chewed and felt the egg roe burst along my cheeks. A little bit of the raw oyster mixed with the quail egg, and all that mixed the sea urchin–and I kept chewing even though, honestly, I thought I was going to either vomit or pass out. Talk about a mouthful. I chewed and chewed and I chewed and tried not to think about how I’d feel later that night or the next morning.
And then I swallowed.
I had to sit there for a full minute before I could even take a sip of my tea.
But you know what? I did it. I looked at WP. I looked at Sweetpea. I drained my tea cup and looked over at the chef who was smiling. “Very good.”
And you know what? In a strange, out-of-body-experience kind of way that I never want to repeat . . . it was.