Who would have thought- a quality nigiri tasting menu for $32. in New York City.
At Sushi Azabu, which has long been heralded as a gem amidst a city chockful of cheap sushi joints to way over the top sushi bars, you can find a balance (somewhat). Their new Koi Menu ($32) consists of 10 pieces of nigiri with a Stater and ending with Miso Soup. The bar is tucked under a multi-ethnic restaurant (Greenwich Grill), sort of like the PDT bar in the East Village. I guess New Yorkers are just suckers for those hole-in-the-wall joints connected by secret passageways.
Stick and I walked in on a Monday night to a virtually empty Greenwich Grill. We asked for two seats at the bar at Sushi Azabu and within minutes they led us through the restaurant and down a narrow stairwell to the sushi bar. There are roughly three tables, seating five people, and a bar that sits, oh maybe eight people or so. The place was packed. If you go, you want to make sure that you reserve seats at the bar, which makes for a much better experience. Here, the sushi chefs speak minimal English, somewhat setting back the experience, but I think it makes it just that much more authentic.
You’re allowed a little over 24 inches by 16 inches of space at the bar. After delicately placing the menu in front of us, the server gave us these hot towels. They came again after the starter course and right before the nigiri.
Before we commence further, for anyone who’s confused about the difference between nigiri and sushi, let me explain. Sushi is sushi- what you traditionally think of: Cali Rolls, Spicy Tuna Rolls, Dragon Rolls, etc… Nigiri, however, is a ball of rice with a slice of raw fish placed on top. Omit the rice, and you’ll have sashimi.
In higher end sushi restaurants, you’ll find that the menu stars either sashimi or nigiri. After all, the value of the dish lies within the fish- not the rice, not the avocado, not the spicy mayo. Truly good sushi does not need any companion (except for perhaps rice) because you want to be able to taste the fullness and richness of the fish.
You’ll also find that at such restaurants, the nigiri/sashimi is not served with wasabi and soy sauce/ponzu (ponzu is a like soy sauce but with citrus). Instead, the chef will prepare the soy sauce and wasabi mixture, and then rub a bit of that mixture on the fish before serving. They’ll serve you a side of ginger. And also, white ginger is considered the “real” deal as compared to those pink ones that you see at the grab-and-go sushi spots.
Hot Sake (unnamed, $15) & Citrus Sake ($9)
We ordered sake right off the bat. There’s an extensive list and I’d have to say it’s quite reasonably priced. The favorite was the Citrus Sake that comes on a “giant rock” (aka ice). It’s sweet but it packs the dryness from the sake.
Remember that if you order the hot sake, it serves two.
Marinated Lotus Root
We started off the night with thin slices of marinated lotus root. There’s a strong sesame flavor to it as it’s not only decked with sesame seeds but I assume also marinated in a sauce that involves sesame oil? Either way, lotus is by nature relatively flavorless and instead packs a nice crunch.
Ginger! (don’t worry, they refill it if that’s not enough for you)
For those of you out there who have never been to a high end sushi bar, please refer to these eating directions. It’s also quite helpful for those of you who aren’t as adept at using chopsticks (ahem, Stick!) Although not applicable here, remember- dip the fish into the soy sauce (not the rice!). I mean, do you put ketchup on the bun of a hot dog?!
Maguro is actually Japanese for the word “fish.” In this case, its the bluefin tuna, which is the best known and most commonly eaten tuna in sushi. This is “toro,” which is fatty belly meat. I expected the tuna to be a bit more fatty so it was a bit disappointing, but still, it was quite delicious. The Toro is served twice during the Koi course (after the salmon).
Gosh, by far the BEST salmon I’ve ever had. Holy crap. It was fatty, it was tender and it was just oh so flavorful. Stick and I both couldn’t get over just how delicious this was!
This was… interesting. We couldn’t understand what the chef was saying (I thought he said Tilapia?!). But I’m pretty sure it’s a Red snapper. It’s tender, but a bit chewier than the rest of the other fishes. Probably among the least favorite of the bunch.
Amaebi (Sweet Shrimp)
Amazingly, this was phenomenal. I generally stay away from shell fish, including shrimp and prawns. I’m usually grossed out by that rubbery and chewy texture, which is not at all what I experienced here. And like its name suggests, it’s sweet!
Salmon Aburi (Seared Salmon)
Perhaps the coolest part of the night was watching the chef whip out his blowtorch and torching the living daylights out of this piece of salmon. What did it taste like? Oh, as you’d expect- pure heaven. The texture is a mix of the flaky bits of layered/cooked salmon on top and raw meat on the bottom. The sweetness from the rice really seals the deal.
Hotate (Seared Scallop)
Oh look! Out comes the blowtorch again! Scallop is definitely not in my common culinary vocabulary. I try to stay away from it. So seeing as I have such an aversion to it already, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this was definitely on the bottom of the list. The seared part was a bit burnt and the texture of the scallop totally freaked me out. But I do have to give points for presentation here.
Yep, definitely good presentation.
Compare- the Red Snapper to the Kanpachi (Amberjack)
This was really confusing since at first I thought the chef served us the Red Snapper again. Of course, when you’re sampling half a dozen fish in between, you totally lose track of what three fishes before the one you’re thinking about tasted like. So looking back at my photos, I realized that these were two completely different fish. This is the amberjack or “kampachi” in Japanese, which usually refers to the “Greater Amberjack,” found in subtropical zones all over the world. This is a less popular fish especially in sushi restaurants in North America. You may see Kampachi on some menus, which refers to Hawaiian yellowtail.
As for the texture, it’s quite delicate and tender. The Amberjack is one of the few fishes that taste good throughout its whole life. I remember thinking that this tasted better than the first, so I assume it meant I preferred the Amberjack to the Red Snapper from earlier in the course?
Tomago (Sweet Egg Omelette)
When Stick and I first sat down, we were both wondering what the chunk of solid yellowness was. “Oh, I know! Is it that turnip cake?!” Fail, Stick. It turned out to be this sweet egg omelette which was surprisingly delicious wrapped with rice in seaweed. They serve you two pieces of this, but I totally forgot to take a picture before I gobbled up the first one!
Even though that was the end of the nigiri course, the chef gave each of us an extra piece! Others on Yelp have shared that they’ve received this freebie too. We got to choose any of the fish and of course, both of us chose that salmon!
At the very end of the meal, they serve you miso soup. It had tiny mushrooms bopping around. I hate soup, but Stick liked it enough to drink mine too!
Overall, we both enjoyed the experience. I was satiated after the meal, but Stick was still hungry. I’d say that only a couple of the nigiri were “eh” but most of them were truly quality sushi that’s worth the $32. Be sure to make reservations unless if you’re going to trek there on a Monday night. And, if you’re really willing to splurge, I suggest going for the full out Omakase menu for $100 (like the guy next to us did. He got the royal treatment).