Ikura, or salmon roe, always tastes delicious topped off with a raw quail egg yoke. Ikura can be ordered by itself but I highly recommend the quail egg to offset the sharp saltiness of the roe. The creamy egg yoke absorbs the salt and adds a mild layer of flavor, especially when the individual roe pop open during chewing. As they pop open, they release more heavenly, salty and oceanic flavor; nothing tastes quite like it.
The quest for budget sushi continues. After months of searching for sushi deals on Groupon and Living Social, I found one for Macku Sushi. Living Social offered a promising deal for an omakase dinner for two of the chef's selections. Check it out here.
I invited fellow budget foodie, sushi slut and really good friend Nina to experience this omakase dinner. We always enjoy the adventure of the deals we come across in our mutual quest for budget sushi. Our dinner included the following courses.
Friday, August 21 - Omakase Dinner Courses
The first course was a sweet potato puree with lobster broth, tiger shrimp, chili and either kelp or mushroom. The waiter placed thick, shallow ceramic bowls of hot, bubbling bisque. I winced at the thick creamy base that would inevitably bloat my stomach and induce a food coma. It looked wonderfully rich but almost a meal in itself that would pair better with a light salad and a piece of lean fish. Maybe grilled hamakama, or yellowtail neck would work. Nina took the first bite and nodded in approval. It was good in a hearty way and I might have enjoyed it more in the winter.
I craved sushi constantly and ate it every chance I got. Luckily other people shared my craving to create enough demand for sushi as an everyday food. Advances in food preservation technology and food transport made it possible for lunchtime cafes to sell sushi by-the-pound. Some critics suggest that the global economy played a crucial role in the sushi explosion. Japan Airlines developed specially refrigerated airplanes used to fly bluefin tuna thousands of miles to vast fish markets. Flash freezing technology preserved freshness and flavor of the fish during and after transport. Somehow, the ability to supply fresh fish coincided happily with a growing demand from an adventurous public willing to try new flavors. Thus began a sushi boon that continues to grow.
Sushi now sells in most major grocery stores and lunch places sell sushi by the pound. Some places even offer customized sushi made on the spot sushi bar style. Alas, these places do not offer as much variety as higher end restaurants but that is to be expected. Specialized items such as sea urchin and salmon roe do not appeal to most diners and are probably harder to keep fresh. Other fish, such as yellowtail, are too expensive and most lunch places substitute yellow fin tuna or escolar for yellowtail. The proprietor of one lunchtime place confided that yellowtail costs $22 per pound, too expensive to sell for lunch prices. I just wish she would take it off the menu already.
Perhaps there is still a sense of sushi's appeal to those who eat it. Despite its growing popularity, not everyone enjoys it. One co-worker characterized it as "fishy and yucky." Fishy and yucky plays directly into the sushi's appeal as an exotic delicacy for those who have acquired the taste for it. Was my journal entry right after all? Does eating sushi provide the illusion of luxury and refinement?
I remember going to Usagi Ya for the first time quite a few years ago. It was mid-winter and my beau and I had a ho-hum Saturday afternoon running errands. Things like ATM withdrawals, dropping off clothes at the dry cleaners and grocery shopping consumed most of our afternoon. It was cloudy and gray and we hadn't eaten much. Stopped at a light in the Polish Triangle, my beau spotted Usagi Ya. "Hmm...," he said, licking his lips, "I have a taste for sushi. Strange."
Usagi Ya looked promising with its modernist mid-century decor and safe, neutral brown earth tones and kanji in black ink. It was 4pm, a bit early for the dinner crowd so we were the only table for an hour. Our dining experience was pleasant and the empty restaurant made our meal intimate and romantic. My beau and talked, drank lots of sake and beer, wracking up an $84 late lunch bill. It was worth the ambiance and service but the sushi needs to come up a notch for the place to succeed.
I kept meaning to go back. The ambiance really had me hooked with its minimalist color palette of pure neutrals. I think I might have even gone back with a friend for a cocktail and sushi nibbles a few months after my romantic outing with my beau. But to be honest, I can't remember if I ever really went before last Thursday. The ho-hum sushi Usagi Ya serves puts this restaurant at the bottom of my priority list for sushi restaurants. Such low priority that it took a LivingSocial.com voucher to get me back. It's kind of a shame because the place looks promising.
But I am a sushi slut and LivingSocial.com vouchers appeal to people who can barely afford their pleasures. The recession made vouchers the norm and now consumers wield power over struggling business who must deal with leaner profits. Now diners whip out their smartphones and present them to waitstaff to scan and redeem. I am still feeling the sting of plane tickets, rental car and meals from last Christmas. So is everybody else.
A good friend and fellow sushi slut, Nina, joined me to redeem the voucher and check it out. We ordered the tuna tartare, the uni shooter and various assort nigiri pictured above. The tuna tartare tasted well-excuted, palatable and fresh enough but nothing exciting or exquisite. Non-sushi restaurants like the Local make solid tuna tartare that tastes creamy and like, almost mild and sleek like yellowtail. The uni shooter stood out as the best experience of the meal. I expected the chili and ponzu to overwhelm the uni but it actually complimented it nicely. The shooter itself contained too much juice so it took at 2-3 tries to get the whole thing down.
We almost ordered another one and I wish we had. That shooter worked nicely, the hot chili oil perking up the earthy kelp flavor and soft, creamy flesh while the ponzu washed it down in a citrus haze. Sometimes food innovations work and this one gave me a different way to enjoy uni. But the menu offered quite a bit of variety, more variety than I remember when I dined with my beau. And I wanted to try everything so we decided to move on to our sushi and sashimi.
The assorted nigiri looked promising enough for Nina to photograph and send to me. Ama ebi with deep-fried shrimp heads, saba, hamachi, escolar, hotate, a sushi cornucopia that looked exciting. But my first taste took me back to my memory of dining with my beau and deciding that it was ho-hum. The fish seems to be a bit lower in quality than comparable places, especially Seadog Sushi across the street. Now that place I still dream of going again because their fish is spot-on.
I won't lie. I might get another LivingSocial.com voucher just to experience their uni shooters. I still want to try their Jalopeno Hamachi just to see how it compares to the same dish served in other sushi restaurants. But I'll put this desire out to the ether now and see if the opportunity comes up. In the meantime, I've set my sights on Wasabi and maybe even Mirai Sushi in my new Gold Coast neighborhood.
Sashimi salads represent the ultimate in fresh, healthy eating. The fresh flavors of raw fish and crispy lettuce revive memories of summer and warmer times. Cooler fall weather calls for heartier fare like udon noodles and yakisoba yet the sashimi salad still offers a healthier and lighter choice. Sashimi salads combine the best of Japanese and Western cuisines. Umami flavors of raw fish and soy pairs well with lettuce and a wide variety of salad ingredients such as cucumbers, sliced carrots, avocados, baby spinach and grape tomatoes. Healthier versions leave out the sushi rice and eliminate the refined carbohydrates but the sushi rice adds a hearty and comforting touch if not overused. A dressing commonly made of Siracha chili, sesame oil, soy and lemon adds citrus and heat that makes umami fish flavors pop. A healthy choice for any time of the year.
The Antonio Special: Salsa Sushi
The Mexican Maki a.k.a the Acapulco Roll is a common fusion menu item in many sushi restaurants. Versions vary but most include either yellowfin tuna, albacore or escolar along with avocado, cilantro, jalopenos and a touch of chili oil and sometimes lime juice. The flavors resemble ceviche with an Asian twist from the sushi rice, nori, soy and wasabi. The best versions of this specialty maki use the non-traditional ingredients carefully, even sparingly. Jalopenos in particular bring a robust peppery heat that can overwhelm other flavors. It does pair well with escolar, the snake mackerel that menus often refer to as "white tuna" or "super white tuna."
Undoubtedly, the flavors of salsa inspired Antonio, the lunchtime sushi chef, to create his Mexico roll. His version contains grape tomatoes and white onions as well as jalopeno, avocado and escolar. The jumble of ingredients atop the maki make a colorful presentation but unfortunately fall off with each bite. Luckily the white onions taste more subdued and do not overpower the maki but the salsa flavor makes it hard to taste the escolar and clashes with the sushi rice.
A Delicious 100 Calorie Drizzle of Spicy Mayo
The decadent spicy mayo turns an otherwise relatively healthy and low calorie into a potential calorie bomb. But the creamy richness blends so well with salmon and avocado, making it difficult to resist. It will take some serious discipline to forgo the mayo and stick with the basic ingredients. Salmon and avocado are also fairly rich foods that taste fantastic on their own.
Negi Hama Maki lunch special at Mariano's
Ten dollars even for the Sushi Lunch Special that comes with a choice of Ok maki rolls, seaweed salad and miso soup. Fantastic.