Cafe Society

Sushi Katsuya

I watch the guy behind the counter work the rice, his hands moving with the formality and grace of a Balinese dancer's, through a series of motions so natural, so ingrained, they are like breathing.

"Slow today," I say, and he nods.

"Slow," he repeats. "Not for lunch. Lunch was busy today, but now?" He shrugs, gestures with a slight nod of his head to the empty dining room behind me. "I think it is because of the rain."

"Rain?"

He nods, claps his hands — the flat pop loud in the otherwise quiet room — then moves on to another hand roll. "Rain. It's going to rain, I think. People are staying home."

It wasn't raining when I stepped into Sushi Katsuya a half-hour ago. It was sunny, almost uncomfortably hot. And the parking lot was full of cars, of people coming and going from the half-dozen other restaurants in this small strip mall — most of them unidentifiable to someone who doesn't read Japanese or Korean except by the occasional pictographic clue (an Eiffel Tower, a red pagoda) or the advertising neon in the windows: Kirin, Tiger, Budweiser.

But none of those people were going to Sushi Katsuya. Just me. And while normally this would make me nervous, it didn't tonight. Spend enough time in restaurants and you develop a kind of sixth sense, a diviner's wisdom for separating the dangerously sepulchral from the merely quiet, calm and composed.

Sushi Katsuya is the latter. I realized that the moment I walked through the door. From the reflexive greeting offered by all the employees (said quickly and in unison, the mark of a crew accustomed to doing so fifty times a night) to the polished sheen of every surface and the careful setting of every place at every table (purple linen napkins folded into tight rosettes behind paper-wrapped chopsticks atop soy sauce bowl set just so...), it was clear this is a staff accustomed to doing good business at the five-month-old restaurant, knocked slightly sideways by a night in which they were doing none at all.

When the waitress brings my miso soup, I bend over the counter to smell it, and this freaks her right out. "Do you not like it?" she asks. "Do you want me to take it away or bring another?"

"No," I say. "Not at all. It's wonderful. I was just..."

Smelling the soup.

I sometimes forget that I behave strangely in restaurants. Even when I'm trying to act normally, my motions — like those of the sushi chef in front of me — are thoughtless, reflexive. I smell everything. I move plates around, arranging them in a certain pattern that helps me remember what I am eating when. And when I spear something with my fork, I shake it before eating, like a dog killing a rabbit. In a crowded restaurant, nobody notices. In an empty one, everyone does.

Japanese restaurants — sushi bars, in particular — are fraught with ritual for me, because I use Japanese restaurants the way some people (normal people) use daily vitamins or the church: as a way of balancing and preserving myself, of getting back to true. Japanese restaurants are places where food walks naked, where flavors are allowed to come out and play without distraction. Simple, spare tastes, ingredients served with the absolute minimum of human contact. With sashimi, there is only the taste of flesh and the knife. Donburi is a celebration of rice behind which no bad cook can hide. And miso soup and green tea are like sacraments: They serve to settle, console and comfort me. When the tea is brought (preferably in an earthenware cup, as at Katsuya, and strained through a sieve lined with tea leaves and small buds), I lay my hand over the top of the cup because I like the feeling of the hot steam burning my palm and the smell that is released when I take my hand away. When I have miso, I always lean over the bowl to smell it, because I find the odor of hot miso soup a powerful stimulant to my appetite. Also, I just really like the smell — salty and rich, savory, almost sweaty when the tofu is of good quality. Long before I taste the soup, I can tell a lot about the quality of work being done in the kitchen simply by the smell.

The sushi chef claps his hands one last time and delivers my first flight. I pick up a piece and bite. The tamago is dense and sweet — halfway between an omelet and a custard. Some sushi junkies claim that everything you need to know about any sushi bar can be determined from the tekka maki; others swear by the octopus (actually a pretty good benchmark). But I go by the egg tamago, which can show skill outside the regular sushi slicer's repertoire, the care with which the cook handles less-sought-after ingredients.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan