May 12, 2007 | BITE: My Journal

   Sakagura Chef Does Spring

    I never dreamed I’d find a kaiseki tasting at Sakagura – the mysterious sake enclave in the cellar of an office building.  Frankly I thought it was more of  an izakaya, a bar with snacks to keep you from falling over in case you decide to taste too many of the two hundred available sakes. Friends had taken me there once when I was ravenous after a pristine and aristocratic $180 omakase across the street at Sushi Yasuda.  I remember Sakagura’s green tea truffles.
                                 Photo: Steven Richter

    But my newest sage guide to eating Japanese, the eager and darling little Mrs. O knows better.  She rarely eats anything but Japanese cooking and has enjoyed two triumphant tastings here. Her pert face wreathed in smiles, she can’t wait for me to discover it.   A huge explosion of cherry blossoms near the kitchen signals the theme as we settle into our booth.  Spring. Whatever else transpires, I know I’ll be tasting the fish and fauna, the buds and stems of the season.

    I ask for a clear, clean, very cold Sake.“ Mrs. O and the movie star lovely waitress translate my musings to mean “dry.” And I get a small icy pour of fermented rice liqueur from the Fukushima prefecture to sip with the opening gambit: a small rectangle of sesame tofu top-knotted with braised abalone slices and a yellow flower in a luscious dashi broth.  Beside it on the aging bamboo mat, in a lacquer basket, the appetizers: sea eel sushi, a fried fish that tastes like dirt, simmered tomato, a slice of meaty duck, and a shrimp slit to hold a half moon of bottarga eggs made with sake dregs.  Sometimes these things just get too Japanese.   I am savoring the slightly slimy texture of what I understand to be ribbons of raw squid in spicy mayo. 

    “Squid intestines,” Mrs. O corrects.

    “No. Not squid intestines,” I protest.  “I ate squid intestines once. Barry Wine (chef-creator of the late lamented Quilted Girafe) made me do it and they were disgusting.”  I dare another noodle of squid. “Maybe those earlier ones were aged in toothpaste and iodine,” I say. 

    Two-thirds the way through our dozen or so courses, Mrs. O observes sadly that tonight’s omakase - $95 per person before drinks and tip -  is not as dazzling as the earlier two.  But we all agree on the evening’s many highs: shrimp dumpling with jellied floats of “watershield,” a lake weed, especially rare to be this small; Jewel like sashimi - Kampachi from Japan; fatty toro from Spain; red snapper of such unreal and velvety firmness I shake my head and marvel; steamed daikon wrapped around foie gras with slivers of lemon peel and sesame in a broth thickened with kuzu. (If you consider yourself a serious foodie and don’t know about kuzu, time to learn. This thickening agent is David Bouley’s newest passion and could be contagious.)

    Intense ginger ice cleanses the palate for the piece de resistance, oodles of peewee shrimp in the shell, head and antenna attached, to be eaten as is, topping a shocking amount of fragrant rice served in the giant casserole it’s been baked in. More than the three of us can possibly finish; mysterious in its anti-kaiseki abundance.

    Two small balls of sesame paste-filled mochi in green tea sauce is dessert.  My guy and I acquired a taste for mochi (a kind of edible chewing gum) this past January in Japan. Alas, just when a person could use a chocolate hit, I don’t see green tea truffles anywhere.

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