My imagination supplied the drumroll as the eel slithered in. Arrayed in a straight line on a white plate, the five swatches were stripey and brown like bacon, cinched at the waist with strips of laver like Victorian dress dummies. Each morsel was balanced on a tiny boxcar of daikon radish dyed deep red to resemble a child’s wooden block. After we enjoyed the unspeakably rich and smoky flavor of the eel, equitably dividing the odd piece between us, my date and I expressed regret over having demolished a dish so visually perfect.
While the eel seemed more Japanese than French, the second arrivant reversed the nationalities: a classic tête-de-veau of calf-head parts compressed into a cold cake, with a dab of liver-y mousse in the center. Helped along with a lively red relish that contrasted with the tête-de-veau’s pale color and coldness, the dish came with a side of bitter greens sprinkled with fried morsels that looked like big puffy commas, soft and slightly crunchy. I mumbled “baby oysters?” as my date hissed “eggplant!” When I studied the menu the next morning, unencumbered by the effects of the dry and herbal Montinore pinot gris from the Willamette Valley, Oregon ($35), duck tongues jumped out at me! But by my third visit, calf head had been deleted from the menu—New York’s first victim of mad cow disease.
Sumile, which means “smile” in Anglo-Japanese, is a new West Village restaurant that takes its fusion seriously. It arrives on the heels of five years of Pacific Rim restaurants around town that have composed menus that were mainly Japanese with a timid scattering of French elements, and often very much in the key of Nobu. In contrast, the food at Sumile is as bold as a car crash. The menu has a gimmick too: Most of the plates are $14. Some are relatively profuse and shareable, while others could be eaten with two fingers in three seconds. After we inhaled five small pieces of fluke sashimi topped with tiny miso beans tagged with bits of burnt onion before the waiter had time to return to the kitchen, my date looked up and mournfully intoned, “You could go broke real fast eating here.”
A few of the offerings are voluminous, though, including flatiron steak ($20)—a trendy cut from the cow’s shoulder offered at a half-dozen places downtown. The sliced meat arrives fanned out and garnished with chopped shallots that have been cooked in red wine and honey. There are floppy mushroom caps too, but the best part is the freshly grated wasabi that comes on a wooden paddle covered with something that looks like rawhide. Ignore this wonderful condiment and you might as well be eating at the Sizzler.
Other dishes friends and I enjoyed on subsequent visits included a squid salad pungently dressed with sea urchin, and the Japanese egg custard chawan-mushi improved with tidbits of rich duck confit. Sumile’s greatest culinary triumph also quacks: a few rare slices of duck breast awash in aged sake and clouded with beige foie gras foam, a flavor combination so utterly decadent that we didn’t bitch about the $19 price tag for what would make, realistically, only a couple of large bites. Afterward, my chums and I went out for a sausage-and-garlic pizza at John’s to fill ourselves up.