September 9, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

Nakazawa Dreams of Jiro


Chef Nakazawa launches his dream of Jiro with a sliver of King salmon from Alaska.


          Daisuke Nakazawa has a manic laugh. It’s making me smile as I watch him put a pinch of I know not what into a clutch of rice and massage it with his palm. Now he sets a thin slice of salmon on top. He sets the small morsel on the speckled black ceramic service plate in front of me. The plate looks like a rectangle of the night sky, with its constellation of dots. “King salmon from Alaska,” he says, “with lime and sea salt.” The rice package is warm and trim, the long cold fish sliver dangles. The signature of Jiro.

After the King salmon comes Sockeye salmon smoked over hay.

         I’m at the stark, minimalist Sushi Nakazawa, in the cushy embrace of an expensive-looking black leather stool at the ten-seat sushi bar put together by my friend, one time restaurateur Maurizio de Rosa and his friend, Alessandro Borgognone, a third generation chef at his father’s Patricia’s in the Bronx’s Morris Park.

The look of Sushi Nakazawa is deliberately minimalist, sleek and subdued.

          I am sipping a warm and brilliant red, full of berries, because I happen to like red wine with sushi. It’s a Feudi di San Gregorio because in his other life, de Rosa flies around the world promoting that wine. Now, on a leave of absence, he is the sake sommelier, dispensing six sakes, cold or icy or tepid, at $40, chosen to enhance each wave of the chef’s omakase dance, $150 at the counter $120 in the back room.

Maurizio de Rosa choreographs the sake tasting. $40 extra.

          Instead of giggly little girls or languorous geisha leaning in behind us to take commands, men in crisp black suits seat new arrivals, explaining the drill, raising or lowering the seats. Pouring the sake. They are not quite Per Se or the Four Seasons. Not quite Brooks Brothers or a debutante’s coming out ball.  But distinguished.

Bronx restaurateur Alessandro Borgognone realizes his own Jiro dream

          I feel stupid to say I missed the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”  But I did. I caught an excerpt on YouTube with a flash of Nakazawa, the senior apprentice to the legendary octogenarian, Michelin three star Jiro Ono. In the film, Daisuke was the one telling how he spent three months mastering Jiro’s unique tamagoyaki, the Japanese dessert omelet.

One minute the scallop is alive in its shell, then it is sprinkled with sea salt and yuzu.

          He laughs again as we ummmm and nod.  Sockeye salmon from Alaska, “smoked over hay,” follows, satiny and seductive. Then, a scallop shell just to look at.  And the delicate scallop itself, vibrating from life and sea salt and wasabi and yuzu tang.

The chef never saw geoduck in Japan but he has learned to use it here.

         Now the diminutive chef is searing geoduck with his torch. Laughing. At himself, I guess. They don’t have geoduck in Japan. It’s new to him here. It’s washed in sea water. He paints it with nikiri, a mysterious dark and sweet soy sauce from one in a collection of dishes he keeps close. A painter with his palette.

          I watch him place chewy, steamed citrus-doused abalone on a cushion of rice with wasabi that he holds in his left hand, then paint it with more nikiri. He is feeding eight of us now, dispensing deliveries in all directions, somehow remembering the rotation for late arrivals.

Nakazawa wants us to know the mantis shrimp is fierce and a fighter.

          Jack mackerel, super cold.  Baby gizzard shad from Japan, trigger fish with wasabi stirred into nikiri. Fluke from Long Island with yuzu pepper and a few crumbles of liver on top. The fierce Mantis shrimp from Japan.  Taking a wiggle live. Then returned wondrously poached. And then blue shrimp.  All cold or very cold.

A large prawn sushi is cut into two bits for easier chewing.

          The shima aji (striped jack) has a hint of ginger in its sweet soy glaze. The skipjack is warm, straw smoked and painted with Japanese mustard. It’s all very classic. The shift from mustard to wasabi to sweet soy is deliberate but subtle. I find it not quite Yasuda, and nothing like Gari. If Neta is a bit like a playground with its commotion, Nakazawa is more decorous, “Men in Black Suits.”

When his daily sushi lineup calls for the fish to be warm, Daisuke torches it.

         To complement the fatty fish, Maurizio brings my companion a new sake. And then it begins, the fusillade of tuna. It starts modestly, with red bluefin tuna from Boston at room temperature, its spicy karashi very subtle.  Medium fatty bluefin follows, cold.  Then the fattiest bluefin at room temperature.

This sensuous bluefin toro sits atop its rice tuffet, as fat as a woman painted by Botero.

          Daisuke takes out a box of sea urchin and laughs like the Joker at my excitement.  He piles two little petals in almost erotic intimacy on top of rice and wraps a ribbon of toasted nori around it. Salmon roe sushi is followed by warm sea eel, and then a hand roll with scratched bluefin tuna. “Like in the movie,” he annotates.

The chef pulls out as box of sea urchin as if they were the family jewels. And they are.

          The counter seats are full now. His second is revved up to quick time. Each arrival is in a different menu stage.  I try to imagine how this will work when the 27 seats in the back room are full for omakase too. (The room is open now.)

Two plump uni cuddle close on this nori-beribboned sushi. If only the taste lasted.

          I wonder how many other dreamers, watching the Jiro film in bed late at night, have been suddenly seized with the need to open a sushi bar. It was 2 a.m. in the Bronx when the movie ended. Alessandro announced his intention that night. His wife protested. “Absolutely not.” But Alessandro went off on an internet search for Nakazawa. By a wild stroke he found the former apprentice on Face Book. After eleventh years with the master, he’d moved to Seattle to work with another Jiro disciple. Emails, pitifully translated by Google, were exchanged.

Scrapings from tuna skin mix with rice in this handroll with freshly toasted nori.

          He sent the chef an eTicket so they could meet. He enlisted our mutual friend de Rosa, a sushi-fervent too, as partner. Maurizio went to Seattle to check out the chef en situ.  Alessandro designed his dream place: stark and spare. “I didn’t want it to look like your typical sushi joint.” The chef came again and again as the concept emerged.  “I wanted to be sure we were all on the same page,” Alessandro says. It took about a year to come together. Maurizio took a leave from his wine duties.

The chef stands at the door below the discreetly painted gold letter Sushi Nakazawa.

          “Sushi Nakazawa” is painted in discreet letters on the door. You walk up a few steps and look in. Dark suits. A tailor shop? But then you see a counter. A small man in a white cap laughing

It took him three months practice to get Jiro’s exquisite tamagoyaki custard exactly right.

          It seems that Nakazawa cried when Jiro finally approved his tamagoyaki. Jiro called him a shokunin, a craftsman. With no fanfare at all, except to wipe off my service plate, a very large rectangle of omelet has appeared. I take a sip of my companion’s third sake. The tamagoyaki is like a rich cake, not a sponge cake, not eggy at all, faintly sweet and incredibly light. Yes. The work of a perfectionist.

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Photos may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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