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Monday, September 12, 2005

Fantasy Sushi


Il était une foie.*

Yes, and so it began, once upon a time not too long ago, a prelude to the assault that was to come: a foot-long tube, two-inch in diameter, of pristine liver, Monkfish liver or Ankimo, cut into half an inch thick pieces, sprinkled with chopped spring onions and bathed in a pool of tart Ponzu sauce.

The scene was an unlikely storefront in a run-of-the-mill California strip mall, this particular one in the green Silicon Valley. I had been given a secret password to enter this special place, hidden in plain view, to partake in the sushi meal to end all sushi meals. Or so it was claimed. What ensued was not so much a meal but a fight to the death battle, ending with comatose diners staggering out the door in bewilderment, bloated in gut and ego, and with a void the size a month’s worth of London rent in the pocketbook.

The iron chef in question, a small Korean man with a sly twinkle in his eyes –if he were French he would make a perfect village native in Peter Mayle’s Provence. He was dressed in half an Adidas tracksuit, the top portion of which replaced by a t-shirt bearing the logo of the best, and most expensive, Japanese fish importer in the area. A good sign, I thought to myself. The man worked the sushi counter like the master of his own Lake Woebegone universe, one in which any man who walked through the door was handsome, and any woman not simply beautiful but worthy of a Hollywood studio contract. Stroking an ego here, dropping a name there, meanwhile flirting rather so wantonly to lady customers, as if helpless in the face of such otherworldly beauty. A funny man he was, if a tad too quick to laugh at his own jokes.

His way with the sword was certainly impressive enough, as displayed on the plate of sashimi cut from an entire side of a Japanese flounder, fashioned into a concentric circle to show off the differences in flavor and texture as we ate our way around the fish. Good quality fish, exemplary knife-work. But that seemed to end there: other specimens of fine fish were not cut so much as hacked –albeit expertly- into massive hunks of raw flesh, hardly fit for consumption in polite company.

There was no denying that the quality of his ingredients was very good. The Uni, sea urchin 'roe', was sweet and bright, it would be hard pressed to remember the last time I tasted better. When the plate of Toro, fatty tuna, arrived, it was so permeated with fat that each piece was practically snow white. Yet each was so large, it was all but impossible to savor the taste and texture of the fish properly. I was taught long ago never to bite a piece of sushi or sashimi, as the etiquette dictates taking each piece in one bite. Here it took all I had to chew and swallow quickly before the gigantic piece choked me to death, never mind savoring anything. Other samples pristine fish were contaminated by aggressively flavored sauce, like the plate of perfectly innocent salmon desecrated by the cloying mustard sauce.

And if you were wondering about the rice, forget about it. Nothing as ordinary as rice was to be found in such extraordinary an occasion. Never you mind that the art of Shari, the preparation of rice for sushi, is seen by many a sushi master inside and outside of Japan as a large part, if not the entire point, of the sushi culture. And never mind that the subtle tang from the vinegared rice would have made a welcome respite from the relentless attack of raw flesh. As I said, never you mind. This was an extraordinary occasion, and you had better appreciate it, or you may never be let in the door again.

At one point, I had to beg for tea, as the thick layer of fat coating my mouth was beginning to induce nausea. I was told nothing as unworthy as tea would be forthcoming, instead there would be a bottle of water. Not any ordinary water, mind you. This water, the chef began his lecture, came from a deep sea fresh water spring underneath an ancient glacier (or perhaps somewhere in that general vicinity.) This miraculous water, he added, nodding his head to punctuate the point, had never seen sunlight at all, and was the purest of the pure. By that point I was so desperate even the notorious Paris tap water would have been welcome, but even in that dire state I couldn’t miss the irony that the water –that amazing deep sea water which during its thousands of years of inception had never once been spoiled by sunlight- came all the way from Japan in a clear PETE bottle. Regardless of the quality of his seafood, the place was beginning to smell fishy to me. Not helping the matter was the bottles of homemade soy sauce on the counter, which somehow ended up in your garden variety red-top Kikkoman bottles. But they surely were homemade, the chef assured us. Of course, how could I have doubted him?

Entirely missing from this meal was the delicacy, balance, and finesse one would expect from a sushi meal at this level. In their place was a pure and simple hedonism of consuming fresh raw flesh in obscene quantity, Supersized Sashimi, if you will. Also missing was the intricate interplay between a diner and a sushi chef. Sitting right across from the chef, looking at him eye to eye, you should expect him to do more than mindlessly cutting the fish, shaping the rice, and handing them to you. You should expect him to be mindful, to observe your habit and comfort. A great sushi chef observes not only if you like what he has given you, but down to the little details like how much soy sauce or wasabi you use, and calibrates the quality, quantity, and selection of sushi properly to your taste. Observance –we could say- was not this particular chef’s strong suit. The pieces got bigger, the laughs louder, and the Sake more expensive as the night progressed.

The meal finally crossed the final barrier into absurdity when he broke out a soy sauce bowl with a ceramic penis attached to it. Yes, you read it right. Penis. Judging from his booming, red faced belly-laugh he thought it the height of hilarity. I was not so amused. Even less amused I became when the bill arrived, somewhere around two thousand dollars, for the four of us. Yes. Again. You read it right. Two. Thousand. Dollars. At that price, I expected the simple perfection at L’Ambroisie, or the sublime philosophy of L’Arpège, or perhaps to be taken on the ride of my life at Pierre Gagnaire. Here, the prevailing sentiment was one that we were taken for a ride alright, just not quite the one we were prepared to be on.

What is this place called, you wonder? Trust me, you don’t really need to know. Just remember this: next time someone surreptitiously whisper into your ears that he could lead you to that mythical, fantastical 'sushi' place in Sunnyvale, keep walking. That white rabbit isn’t worth following.

And the best irony of it all, here, this is the United States of America, where dreams and fantasy of a democratic -and above all egalitarian- universe find a natural home. This is not just Anytown America, even. This hood is The Valley, Silicon Valley, where meritocracy reigns supreme: your money isn’t respectable unless it is self-made. So, isn’t it the height of irony that a simple delusion of exclusivity -being able enter a place despite the Closed sign at the door- still worth such a pretty penny?

Well, then again, in a town where your H2 is barely bigger than your neighbor’s, it must be nice to have a sushi chef who keeps reminding you, Chinpokomon-style, that you are the master of his pretend universe, with more money, taste and style than all, even if the boundary ends at the door, and -more importantly so- at your packetbook. At the end of the day, what is life but a collective pretense?

Come to think of it, perhaps the incongruity of it all was worth it after all. And, perhaps it’s high time to change the tag line of my blog: Chez Pim, I take it, so you don’t have to.

This line was borrowed from an ElBulli Book: texte et prétexte à textures. The foie gras chapter, naturally. I couldn't restraint myself: it begged to be stolen, err, borrowed, for this particular post. I'm sure Ferran wouldn't mind.


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