By Gretchen Kurtz
By Mark Antonation
By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
From the other: "Beets! Where's the stuff? The...you know, beet stuff?"
I felt for the guys on the hot line — but I was also hungry. My waiter came by, bringing a warm towel for my fingers, a stack of menus, a beer. We started talking — about the Izakaya concept that the brothers Kizaki had imported from Japan, similar to a Spanish tapas restaurant with a menu that offers a little of everything, and about what I should order off that menu and how much of everything I should order.
"How hungry are you?" he asked.
"I'm starved," I said.
Izakaya's menu is impossible, ridiculous, amazing, awe-inspiring and should never work in a million years, but somehow it does. At its core, it's a fusion menu. A Japanese-Mediterranean fusion menu (with hints of northern Spain and France and America shot through it like rogue strands of culinary DNA), which I've never seen done before and likely will never see done again as well as it is here when, in the coming years, everyone starts copy-catting its genius.
My favorite Sushi Den dish is the one that comes free: an amuse of thin-sliced cucumbers and tiny bits of lobster meat floating in a cold broth of sesame-spiked soy. The minute I told my Izakaya server I was starving, this same dish appeared before me, handed over the rail with a smile and a nod. I followed it with a plate of sashimi — five pieces of immaculately fresh tuna, perfectly sliced across the grain, sitting in a puddle of gingered soy beneath a haystack of shaved daikon and slivered green onions. It was expensive — sixteen bucks — but I wasn't paying for the fish, the soy, the daikon or any of that so much as I was for the tiny smear of real grated Japanese wasabi sitting in the center of each piece of tuna. This wasabi grows only in the rocky riverbeds of Japan's northern mountains, and is so rare that it fetches a price among aficionados like white truffles do in Italy. Odds are good you've never had the real thing — have instead had plain horseradish mixed with mustard powder and dyed a bright, neon green — but it's available at Izakaya. It tastes nothing at all like that sharp green crap, but rather bluntly spicy, hot, almost peppery, a little sweet, and when I took my first bite (a whole piece of sashimi folded over that pinky-nail-sized bit of treasure), the wasabi numbed my face like a swallow of frozen vodka or a toot of high-grade cocaine.
Totally worth it.
After our discussion of intent and appetite, I'd told my server to just bring the food as it came up, that I'd keep ordering until I reached my limit. Next I devoured a napoleon of Spanish serrano, goat cheese and heirloom tomatoes marinated in oil and herbs de Provence; an Italian panzanella salad with more goat cheese and chunks of lump crab dressed in a plum-wine vinaigrette; a fiery Japanese/Chinese-meets-soul-food riff of Arctic char blackened with crushed Szechuan peppercorns mounted atop a quarter of gingered waffle, served between two dots of thickened grapefruit and basil beurre blanc (which, oddly, tasted of neither grapefruit nor basil) and a mound of tamari-spiked whipped cream. Eating a waffle with chopsticks is a challenge, so I set mine aside and ate with my fingers, working through the pain, the fire. I could've eaten nothing but this goofy, delicious dish, but I had other pleasures lined up on the bar, being worked in the kitchen.
A roulade of smoked salmon — the fish wrapped inside a delicate pastry shell with shiso and sake-infused cream cheese, and piled with a fall of chopped mangoes sharpened by jalapeño. Scallops over delicately truffle-scented potato purée. Italian crostini mounded up with earthy and gamey duck breast glazed in Hoisin sauce that made it sweet as duck candy.
I wanted to eat more — particularly the short ribs in Korean marinade and the Maine lobster in an apricot-shallot veloute — but I was betrayed by my own failing digestive powers. Not for the first time (and probably not for the last), I wished I was an enormously fat man — another Escoffier or Beard, capable of eating one of everything on this mind-blowing menu and then still walking out under my own power. But I'm not. I'm only human. And by the time the medallions of kobe beef (done au poivre and flash-seared so that they were basically raw in the middle) arrived with their topping of fried shallots and their bed of cold watermelon, mint and edamame salad, I knew I was done. I made a valiant attempt to eat what was before me, but I just couldn't finish it — perhaps because of what I'd already eaten, or maybe because this was the one disappointing dish to come out of the kitchen all night. The pepper was too strong, the salad not sweet enough to stand up to the savor of the kobe beef, and the promised "curry essence" completely absent.