April 27, 1998 | Insatiable Critic

Holy Mackerel

Here we go again -- overnight, BondSt in NoHo is hotter than wasabi, the place to cross chopsticks with the neighborhood’s parading mantises.

        BondSt has heat in its DNA. Sired by seasoned impresarios from Indochine, Nobu, Republic, and “44” at the Royalton, it was blessed on its opening night by the pied pipers McNally, both Brian and Keith schmoozing at the same table. It fairly glows in its whitewashed townhouse between the clutzy clamor of Broadway and the scuz of Skid Row -- target for unrepentant pilgrims as they careen in the night. Brand-new three weeks ago, with only its sub-pavement bar in action, the minimalist lounge is already on the circuit for savvy downtowners. We watch them stride in like an occupation army -- giant totes and attachés proclaiming their burden of importance -- to settle on polyestered banquettes defined by a series of black-painted slats like so many prison cells. We tilt and nearly tumble off unsteady tuffets that might dump us and our ice-cold sake on the floor were it not for Pilates-honed agility. Dragging a soft-shell-crab roll through driblets of wasabi yogurt, we are thrilled to recognize the signature crunch and spicy scrawls of a favorite sushi chef. 

        The modish rabble I expect will inevitably claim BondSt’s duskily lit booths are still ironing their T-shirts and gelling their crew cuts at 7:30 on Friday night, so it’s no trick for two of us to slip into the back room and claim prime seats at the counter -- Hiroshi Nakahara’s domain. He was massaging rice at the T Salon under the Guggenheim when I first fell for his saucy calligraphy and flirtatious smile. Like Brad Pitt, he seemed to savor some delicious secret (though probably it was only how much wasabi would melt my heart). Now he’s the lead crooner in a trio, grunting Sid Caesaresque welcomes and farewells, spinning a spirited sushi shtick that never gets unduly raucous. “Omakase,” I say, meaning let the chef decide, and with five swift slashes, a spill and a splat, we are chopsticking raw black sea bass tinged with ginger ponzu on small seeds with a crackle. “Soba risotto,” he says, pleased with his newest cultural fusion. Usuzukuri, scallops of wild striped bass, dotted with red cod roe and floating in a slush of celery purée and obha vinaigrette -- shiso sorbet. “It’s a slushi,” my companion cries. 

        A dab of caviar and a flutter of gold leaf top melting pink tuna belly, and the same regal extravagance crowns sea-urchin sushi with its shiso-leaf cravat. The indulgence dazzles; only foie gras is missing. Even a modest conceit like an inside-out sesame-paved shrimp roll comes on like a diva in a puddle of amazingly balanced curry sauce surrounded by swirls of intense balsamic vinaigrette. And seemingly unassuming chicken dumplings nested on a spotted persimmon leaf surprise with a hint of mint and the texture of their tofu-shred cummerbund. Now Hiroshi unties the orange-string binding of a fluke sushi in leafy bondage and hands us each a half. The subtle fish is infused with the wood savor of bamboo. But it is the exquisite complexity of the pressed mackerel under a coverlet of kelp with a girdle of cherry leaf that stuns us into uncharacteristic silence. Amazing what sensory time-bombs can be detonated by a quarter-ounce of flesh and a few grains of rice in a sushi master’s hands. 

        I’ll grant you, a purist could be offended by the rambunctious tricks Hiroshi plays on classic themes. But the basic commandments of sushi are honored here. The rice is warm. The fish is cool. The nori is crisp and toasty. An occasional hit of fresh-grated wasabi blows a hole in your head. Lightly battered tempura and a traditionally sedate dipping brew let you taste the shrimp, the asparagus, a crunch of carrot and lotus root. Delicate chunks of lobster tempura piled in the shell beside a stacked salad of frisée and lolla rossa with a Japanese-mustard dressing reflects Hiroshi’s cross-pollination with the kitchen chef, Linda Rodriguez, French-technique-trained and a Nobu alumna. Hiroshi showed her soba seeds. She came up with the idea of risotto. Fried celery leaves were her trick to pep up the shiso vinaigrette. And she hopes to persuade him to try a wasabi beurre blanc. “There’s nothing I can’t try,” she says. “He’s so interested in purées and emulsions, whatever it is, because it’s French or Italian.” The marriage works in grilled shrimp with smoked-trout butter, in crusty monkfish cutlets on a sensational spicy-and-sour salsa, and in grilled Chilean sea bass painted with miso. 

        By Saturday of the first week, the shadowy front dining room is jammed with night-blooming buds, a blur of black, a blare of mating calls that vie with loud techno on the sound system. Tearing through the menu, appetizers $6 to $12, entrées $17 to $22, our posse seeks sanctuary in the brighter, slightly more tranquil annex, where the techno twang is somewhat softer and we can watch Hiroshi and his bouncy backups strut and strain to keep a tidal wave of sushi moving. Relays of owners soothe the snarls of traffic and supervise the serving crew -- on long legs in slit-to-there black slip dresses, rather difficult to distinguish from distaff guests. We must have a reprise of our favorites, plus tremulously fresh yellowtail nuzzled against a hillock of ice and sea urchin again, this time as sashimi -- with caviar and gold leaf on a crisp. Smartly citric soups are equally exhilarating. The spiced blue crab has a lemongrass kick and the truffle-and-clam dobin mushi poured into a porcelain thimble gets a last-minute squeeze of calamanci, a lime as big as a cherry. 

        The crush is too much for this brand-new kitchen, stretching the recess between cold and hot appetizers rather painfully. But even without the delay, I find the clarion intensity of Hiroshi’s jazz to be a tough act to follow. Except for the beautifully cooked sea bass and fresh-just-wilted spinach, all the entrées -- lamb chops, slivers of steak, expertly cooked chicken -- seem too rich. Still musing on the ethereal mackerel, one of my guests despairs that the fat in the more Western entrées makes them taste “dirty.” 

        When I eat sushi, my idea of dessert is uni. (Although I must admit that after certain memorably esoteric sushi feasts, I’ve gone out for a pizza.) Is BondSt’s chocolate fondue a better finale? I prefer the tangy sorbets piled on a leaf with two cookie spears or the chilled spring soup with Asian pears, raspberries, and a plop of crème fraîche in a stickiness of tapioca. And the butter cookies, chocolate-nut clusters, and petits fours on the “Sweet Nothings” plate are perfect with espresso, and a revelation with green tea. 

BondSt, 6 Bond Street (777-2500). Dinner, Monday through Wednesday from 5:30 to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday till 11:30 p.m. A.E., M.C., V. 

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