When the Student Is Ready
I've come to know many chefs, and when I dine out with one of them, I'm always delighted to be transformed from pundit to student. I learn as I eat, honing perception, fine-tuning taste memories, and making the acquaintance of new ingredients. My most recent apprenticeship took place at a recent dinner at Osaka, a new Japanese spot on Brooklyn's ever expanding Court Street dining strip.
I'd eaten there several weeks prior with homeboy friends who surprised me by their willingness to eat bait. After a brief wait for a table at this popular place, we began with an order of the steamed soybeans the Japanese call edamame ($4.95), and I introduced my Southern friends to the Japanese version of boiled peanuts. We savored the primal pleasure of popping them from their shells and the chewy slip of the legume, then continued with sushi rolls, indulging ourselves in an array that ranged from the basics to freshly contrived house specials. I always stick to simple to better savor the individual taste of each fish and found that the salmon skin was satisfyingly crisp and chewy and the negihamachi ($4.50) offered a good ratio of sweet yellowtail to pungent scallion. My friends selected combination rolls with names that sounded like martial arts moves: the rock and roll (broiled salmon skin, eel, and cucumber, $5.50), the spider (soft-shell crab tempura, cuke, mayo, and flying fish roe, $6.95), and the eastern (shrimp, egg, and avocado with a sprinkle of caviar, $5.50). They also indulged their Southern penchant for heat and scarfed down the spicy tuna roll ($5.50) with more than one dab of the particularly pungent wasabi. Good food, good friendship, and good fun.
The joint was still jumping some weeks later when I arrived with Scott Barton, executive chef of the Shoebox Café. This time, obviously, I was the student. He too began with edamame, but opined that he preferred them warm and would have liked our Yebisu beer ($5) colder. He smiled when he located monkfish liver ($8.95) on the menu, and informed me that ankimo, as it is known, is the foie gras of Japan. Silken in texture and frothily light, the innards of this deep-water fish are reminiscent of goose liver, but airier and only the tiniest bit fishy.
We moved on to mains and decided to try some nonsushi dishes. His miso scallops ($13.95) proved slightly tough: The sizzling platter on which they appeared overcooked them in transit from kitchen to table. In addition, he would have liked more of the caramelized onions that seasoned the bottom of the plate. I enjoyed my beef sukiyaki ($13.95), preferring the light lemony broth offered as an alternative to the usual sauce, as its citrus taste highlighted the individual flavors of tofu, beef, scallions, onions, and more that made up the heart of the dish. We were both still a bit peckish, though, at meal's end, and so returned for toro ($4.50), served in a long strip overflowing the rice (Osaka style, as Scott informed me), and a delicately flavored live scallop ($9.95)thin slices of the crustacean fanned out on the shell. Then, sated and delighted by the sushi's perfection, we moved on to desserts: tempura ice cream ($4.50), a battered tour de force where the warm, crisp crust provided a cookielike contrast; and a fried banana ($4.50) served with a flavorful green tea ice cream that confirmed the tempura chef's mastery and left me ready to learn more.
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