by Celia Sin-Tien Cheng
April 3, 2009
108 W 44th St
(Broadway & 6th Ave)
New York, NY 10036
On a recent wintry night, my sister and I spent an unforgettable evening at Sushi Zen. We left our dinner fate in the hands of Master Sushi Chef Toshio Suzuki for an omakase meal. Sitting at the sushi bar, we had a blast chatting with him. As he and his chefs worked, we joyfully anticipated what would come next.
Our meal began with Chef Suzuki’s signature starter of seared big eye tuna and seasonal vegetables served with spicy grated daikon in ponzu sauce (a mixture of lemon and soy sauce). A classic dish, it was beautifully garnished with a thin slice of taro stem — something I’d never seen before. The skinned stem looked like a thin white slice of loofa with lots of holes; it had a crunchy texture and refreshing flavor. It’s this attention to detail that sets Sushi Zen apart from other restaurants.
Following the tuna was an extravagant plate of sashimi, which included egg-yolk-dusted marinated tuna, toro (fatty tuna) and fluke liver wrapped with live fluke sashimi and then wrapped in leaves. I was sure that the sashimi was enough to fill me up, but there was more to come.
One of my favorite courses was the hassun, a traditional plate of bite-sized treats that change daily. We were served slices of grilled turban shell clam, butterbur flower tempura — a slightly bitter, but delicious, winter vegetable; seared Wagyu beef skewers, grilled bamboo shoot with kinome miso (miso with fresh sansho leaves), and cooked blowfish jelly. The precision and beauty of the presentation made it all the more delicious.
Next we received a bowl of cooked seasonable vegetables (takiawase) that included kabocha, carrot, taro, bamboo shoot, broccoli rabe, eggplant, nama yuba (tofu skin), and nama fu (wheat gluten cake). Chef Suzuki explained that each ingredient is cooked individually to bring out its unique flavor and then combined with the others in a light broth. While this looks like a simple dish of cooked vegetables, preserving the essence and unity of flavors in preparation is no small feat.
Because it was a cold day, we were next served a monkfish hot pot with tofu, seasonal vegetables and mushrooms on a portable Japanese clay cooking stove.
Last but not least was the chef’s selection of sushi. We were handed piece after piece of fish carefully paired with homemade sauces — a good variety derived from vinegars, soy mirin and other sauces. I was stuffed by then but could never refuse sushi. Chef Suzuki opened my eyes, or palate more appropriately, as I don’t like the texture of raw shrimp or squid, so I usually avoid them in sushi. However, he cross-cut the surface of a piece of squid finely, then put a blow torch to it briefly, so the cross-cut bits curled up into a beautiful pattern. While I still didn’t enjoy the raw parts of the squid, I’m glad I tried the combined texture of soft and hard in one piece of sushi.
The Japanese say there’s a separate stomach, called betsubara, reserved for dessert. So, despite our protests, he insisted that we have dessert, and we ultimately agreed to share one. The homemade sorbets — white guava and cactus fruit — were superb! The flavors are distinct and the essence of the fruit exact but subtle. I was surprised because I’ve only had pink guava in the U.S. But this sorbet reminded me of the guava I grew up on in Taiwan. You even get the gritty texture of the pulp in the ice.
It was a spectacular evening, with lots of laughs as we learned so much from Chef Suzuki, a member of the Gohan Society, which promotes the understanding of Japanese cuisine. He explained why he insists on using Japanese rice instead of California, despite the price, it’s worth it to achieve perfection. I would enjoy Chef Suzuki’s company and conversation any day. The fact that he’s a master sushi chef just sweetens the deal.