Daruma Bums


While other cuisines are licensed to innovate freely, Japanese often remains hidebound. Ninety-eight percent of Japanese restaurants have menus you could recite in your sleep, offering the same predictable constellation of sushi, teriyaki, soba, etc. If innovation occurs, it’s often timid. Eleven years ago, when Nobu introduced black cod cooked in miso paste, it caused a sensation on par with the signing of the Magna Carta. Now it’s on every Japanese menu in town. Tataki—a lightly seared sashimi—was another modest trick that was greeted with universal astonishment and adulation.

Thus I was slightly freaked-out, then delighted, to discover the menu at Williamsburg’s Bozu. The year-old restaurant sits on Grand Street, a dead-end thoroughfare that’s becoming an incubator for some of the most original cooking in the borough. Once we entered the shadowy warren of rooms, it seemed apparent that Bozu must be Japanese for “Bozo,” since right inside the front
door a curtain of identical red-faced scowling heads descends from the ceiling on parallel strings, like a sideways abacus. But no, a passing waiter informed us, it wasn’t Bozo but Daruma (Bodhidharma in Sanskrit), a head-only evocation of the founder of Zen Buddhism said to bring good luck.

Maybe the place needs some luck. Bozu (“bald-headed”) thrives on taking culinary chances. Tuna tataki ($7), for example, develops a voice and sings via an elfin scoop of strawberry sorbet that melts as the pinwheeled formation is ferried to the table. It brings a welcome pucker to the lips. Against all odds, I liked the “Italian” onigiri (two for $4.50), a newfangled take on the rice ball, Japan’s favorite snack. Mixed with chopped green olives and slivers of sun-dried tomato, it remained more Japanese than Italian. Not so, a special rice croquette that oozed what tasted like Velveeta cheese
one evening. Back to the drawing board, folks.

Bozu eschews normal sushi. Among the seaweed-wrapped maki, find the “salmon stinky roll” ($5), which applies garlic to the bored-stiff orange fish. Another roll, called U.S.A., cryptically incorporates eel, shiso, and asparagus into the compressed pipe of rice. But the predominant form of sushi at Bozu—and the restaurant’s most arresting invention—is the “bomb.” Standing in for normal, finger-shaped sushi are round buttons of vinegared rice topped with raw fish, further extended skyward by ingredients like avocado, cucumber, green-tomato sauce, and frizzled deep-fried noodles of miniature circumference. What is the bomb’s significance? Well, individual pieces are smaller in volume than normal sushi, hence you never have to wonder whether to bite a piece in half or swallow it whole. Individual bombs (there are nine of them) vary in price from $4.50 to $6, but the most impressive way to experience them is via the “party bomb,” a 12-piece selection of four types.

Bozu has been called a Japanese tapas bar, and that’s fair enough. The smaller dishes are certainly the best, including a plethora of composed vegetarian salads featuring grains, tofu, tomatoes, seaweed, and grapefruit, generally dressed with soy and miso. The tofu salad ($6.50)—creamy tofu with avocado and plum tomatoes—is probably the best thing on the menu. The bigger dishes, like seafood stew and sake-marinated skirt steak, don’t fare as well. But who needs them when you’ve got the bomb?