September 24, 1979 | Vintage Insatiable
Take-Zushi: The Joy of Sushi

        There are tastes that sing like a heavenly chorus.  Tastes to record in the mouth's hall of fame.  Sudden gastronomic epiphanies as striking to one's innocent sensibilities as Nude Descending a Staircase must have been that long-ago day in the armory.  Now I am going to tell you about a transcendent hour between one and two at a tiny lunch counter one flight up over East 48th Street -- lunch on a plateau of bliss at Take-Zushi.  The tribute may seem rash, I know.  There is no way the bacon-lettuce-and tomato-on-crustless-toast crowd will be able to comprehend my fever.

        I knew Take-Zushi -- this spare little second-story eater -- was a celebrated sushi sanctuary. Take-Zushi, alas, does not need to be discovered. By one o'clock there is always a line. Saturday dinner is a bargain lure for Japanese families.  (The crush has fostered an annex down the block, at 19 West 48th Street -- it's called Amimoto --and another at 45th Street and Sixth Avenue.)  Weekdays after two the crowd does thin and regulars arrive. "Just give me the usual," I heard one man say, and the waitress nodded instant assent.

        But I was a novice in the sushi faith.  I had dabbled warily in sashimi- exploring raw tuna and mackerel…toying with salmon row on sticky rice in seaweed ribbons…quite pleased with the sweet subtlety of raw fish.  And I had eaten, here, one beautiful briny morsel after another.  Still I had a sense that beyond the supernal tuna and the crunchy sea clam were mysteries Take-Zushi had yet to reveal.

        My friend Joel Grey, schooled in sushi lore and coached in Japanese fish talk by his secretary, Violet Arase, was pleased to play spiritual guide. As he explained: Sit at the tables and you'll have glorious fresh fish and ethereal egg pancake, the exquisite morsels arranged, like jewels, in a lacquered lunch box- menu samplers $4 and up. But the cognoscenti hug the counter, improvising. "Okonomi," the house calls it.  Choosing lunch by the item (50 cents to $2.50), you can easily spend $35 for two-tax, tip, and beer included.  The secret, Joel confided, is to wait for a spot at the counter, develop a meaningful relationship with you sushi chef, and explore the rare exotica of the day.

        "Like Englewood," said Joel.

        "Englewood?"

        "It's the muscle of the fin of the fluke," he explained.  "Engawa.  I just say ‘Englewood’ wherever I go and they seem to understand."

        Behind the counter, the master chef is slamming a side of tuna belly with his knife.  It looks like ritual violence. But no. "He just wants to see how the fish responds, how it bounces," says Joel. Our chef is fussy. What he won't use, his confreres will. Some touches are stunning. His seaweed wrappers go into the toaster oven behind him. He offers tiny seaweed squares so fingertips need not bruise his delicate temaki (fish and rice hand-rolled in seaweed). How calm he is, how casual, as he sets the stage: two small lacquered trays on a riser above the counter…a swirl of pickled ginger and a neat dab of pale-green wasabi -- Japanese horseradish.  A waitress brings tea for me, beer for Joel.  Joel pours soy into a tiny saucer and dissolves a whammy of wasabi in the mahogany pool. The knife-slashed sea clam (mirugai) is crisp and firm. Joel dips a crisp curl in the soy. I am a purist. I use very little soy, preferring to savor the sea taste unmasked, dipping every third bite to refresh the blur. At that point the salty counterpoint restores lulled taste buds.

        "I never order shrimp here," say Joel, indicated rosy cooked scampi.  "Except when they have the baby ones…raw."  Six raw shrimplets (amaebi) are set anuzzle before us.  The taste is all scent. The thrill now is texture.  "Slimy," I observe.  "Wonderfully slimy."

        "Better say 'soft'," Joel advises. "Or better…'insinuating'." And they are insinuating, soft and rich…sweetly perfumed. Between shrimp, Joel hooks a slice of ginger on his chopsticks. "Not too pickled, not too bland," he comments. "This is like a sorbet in a French dinner…a palate cleanser to me."

        Now the chef has something Joel has never tasted before -- razor clam (mategai).  Suble and firm. Perfumed and delicious. He offers us bright-green fresh seaweed to bridge the intermission.

        Next he examines wooden crates of sea-urchin -- prodding, squeezing, rejecting a bruised proletarian. "He is doing that for us," I surmise.

        "No," says Joel.  "He does it for himself. He has his own standards." The moment for uni is near. The master wraps it in vinegared rice in a crisp seaweed finger roll. I remember my first sea urchin, at a sidewalk bistro in Paris. It was harsh with iodine. It took years till I found my sea-urchin courage again. Take-Zushi's uni are miraculously sweet. The briny perfume goes right to the brain, wafting intimations of cosmic joy. We're both giggling now, so I know Joel has the madness too. "That taste," he marvels."Deep funk."

        Uni is a bit like grass…a distorter of time. Suddenly we are eating tuna belly, fiercely blushing tuna belly. "Look at the color," says Joel. "It's like a Rothko." Next, herring roe on a seaweed leaf (komuchi-kombu) --  a unique crunch never before experienced.  The chef minces swordfish with scallion (kajiki-to-kirami-negi-temaki) to wrap with sticky rice in crisp toasted seaweed.  "I think he invented this one," says Joel.  "Oishii, oishii," he salutes the chef. "So good". And to me:"You don't want to dip the rice in soy, just the fish or the seaweed. Soy-soaked rice ceases to be the required vehicle of blandness."

        Next to us a woman is savoring the sashimi blue-plate special- fukiyose chirashi, $4.50- sipping beer and cutting a swath through the Times crossword puzzle. We are floating a Zen level above her, I suspect, nibbling yamaimoume-temaki with a kick of pickled plum in a rice-seaweed finger roll. The yamaimo has crunch and makes a sticky, stringy slime.  You cannot taste it.  But you can see it. After a pause of reverence, Joel orders a futomaki. The chef overlaps a couple of crisp wrappers, spreading them with rice.  He dabs a bit of fish powder and arranges odd sticks of pickled things.  Rolled and sliced, it is a beautiful galantine: pink fish powder, aromatic pickled cucumber, and chewy black mushroom on a white rice field inscribed with curls of deep green -- sweet and salt, soft and crunch.

        Joel is explaining Japanese etiquette. "It is proper to put the whole sushi into your mouth at once." Around the corner of the counter I watch an elegant Japanese woman chewing behind the  screen of her hand, eyes downcast. I argue for the Chinese style -- biting off as much as you can gracefully chew.  Am I ready to leave Emily Post gasping in the gutter for ethic authenticity? I wonder. Our chef interrupts with a new temaki -- a mystery roll (shake-no-kawato-kyuri-no-temaki), a celestial astonishment: crisp toasted salmon skin, salty and warm in vinegared rice with a cool blast of fresh cucumber in a seaweed wrap. I am wowed. "It's as haute as anything," Joel marvels. "Subtle, sophisticated, civilized."

        Now he announces we will finish with soup. Now? "Yes.  I noticed last week, the Japanese eat soup at the end. To seal everything in." We share a bowl of thin bean puree with scallion and floats of seaweed. But Joel seems restless…unfulfilled.  "Two uni sushi, please," he says.

        "Joel, we just sealed everything in."

        "I know.  But I think we should leave with uni in the mouth."

        The master chef smiles indulgently.  We both pop the uni sushi into our mouths whole.  The brine curls into my brain.  Joel leaves a great pile of money behind.  I feel like a kid who's just swallowed a Hostess Twinkie whole. Rich and wicked and greedy…and happy to be alive, delirious imagining life's astonishments yet to come.

        (Just last week I returned to Take-Zushi to scale the sushi heights with a deserving friend, using a bilingual crib sheet. Uni, alas, was out of season. ditto swordfish, herring roe, and baby shrimp.  A new chef, less boldly theatrical, indulged our halting Japanese.  He minced tuna belly with scallion in his own clever fold -- negi-toro-temaki -- and then assaulted our mouths with an astonishment of sushi.  There were little futomaki jewels- a heart of tuna in a ribbon of cucumber and some astonishing tender squid in seaweed wrap -- baby futomaki chef's style.  "Englewood," we said, and were rewarded with the elusive fin of the fluke…as experience in pure texture.  All of this for $35.)

11 East 48th Street.

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