Sunday, July 08, 2012

Omakase at Zushi Puzzle

My epic quest to eat massive amounts of foie gras has been forced to come to an end, so it was time to find a replacement.  I was looking for another ingredient that I love, that has strong flavor, creaminess ...  and it struck me: uni!  And what better way to start of my uni crawl, than with the most simple preparation ever: sushi.

I have a backlog of sushi places I want to try, and one of them, Zushi Puzzle, actually takes/requires reservations.  And they are known for their uni, in two different preparations - one of live uni and one with some tofu.  I've tried to go several times, but was never able to get a reservation.  The holiday weekend seems to have helped, as I was able to easily get in the first seating.

As always, I did extensive research before going.  The reviews were universal: you must sit at the sushi bar, and you must order the omakase.  Done and done.

The sushi bar seats only 8 people.  When we arrived for our reservation, we were told at that the chef was not ready for us yet, and were asked to sit in the main dining room for a while.  This seemed a little strange, why couldn't we just sit at the bar while he prepared?  Anyway, we sat out at a table just waiting for about 15 minutes, as did everyone else with sushi bar reservations.  The restaurant was incredibly spacious.  There was a lot of space between tables, the bathrooms were huge.  They could clearly seat many more people, but have chosen not to, probably due to the speed of the kitchen.

Once we were moved to the sushi bar, we got to meet the main sushi chef, Roger.  He was in charge of all of the nigiri/sashimi.  Off to the side was the rest of the kitchen, with a chef making all of the rolls, and another making all of the cooked items.  The bar was decorated with an eclectic mix of items: a stuffed blowfish, a giant crab shell, awards he has won, a beautiful orchid, a fresh wasabi root.

Roger made the entire night very memorable.  He started off asking the couple next to us what they wanted.  They said "omakase".  And then he asked them for more details - what do you like, what can you not stand.  They didn't really say much, so he launched into an explanation, explaining that he had 7 types of salmon, 5 types of tuna, 3 types of mackerel, etc, etc.  That they have cooked dishes, rolls, nigiri.  There are a zillion different omakase menus he could come up with, and he doesn't have a fixed one like some places, he wants to make you what you want.  They gave a few vague preferences, as did the others seated at the bar.

I, on the other hand, knew exactly what I wanted to tell him.  No avocado or watermelon, since I'm allergic.  Love uni.  Love salmon.  And my dining companion can't stand truffle oil (which I knew they used there).  He served most of us the same first few dishes, but branched out near the end of the meal.  We had a massive amount of food.  Far more than we intended to, as can be the danger in omakase.  We were already pretty full when he sent a platter of 24 pieces of sashimi our way (there were only two of us).

The experience of sitting at the bar was quite memorable.  Roger was talkative, and his open conversation with everyone encouraged us all to chat with each other.  We got to know everyone else seated at the bar.  Roger also took the time to ask our names, and addressed us by them throughout the night.  He really made the experience.  He also taught us a number of things along the way, like the proper way to eat uni (mush it in your mouth, don't bite), how to eat nigiri (put a dot of wasabi on it, flip it sideways), and how to handle the fish (don't touch it too much, or you make it warm).

At one point, I saw him preparing sliced beef nigiri, on top of which he put two different white substances, and then blowtorched.  I couldn't quite identify what went on top, it sorta looked like monkfish liver, but that seemed like a strange thing to torch.  So I asked him, and he told me that one was kobe beef fat and the other was ... foie gras, compliments of the chef, of course.  If I hadn't been stuffed at that point, you know what I would have ordered!

Overall, the food was good.  The fish was all clearly very fresh, served at the proper temperature, and had really good texture.  Most of it wasn't all that flavorful or notable however, with the exception being his phenomenal salmon selection.  The selection in general was quite impressive, with a lot of fish that you don't commonly see, and many varieties of the same type of fish.  Prices were fine, not particularly high nor low.  I'd go back if someone wanted to, and I appreciate being able to make reservations, but my list of sushi places to try is long, and this wasn't better than other places I've been, so I'm in no rush to return.
Complimentary edamame.
To begin with, we were given some rather unremarkable complimentary edamame.  There was nothing wrong with it, but it was served cold, and not salted.  Least favorite dish of the night.
Best Hand Roll.  $6 each.
The first real dish was the "best" hand roll.  Chef Roger told us if we didn't agree with the name, we should just ask for the check and leave :)

Inside the roll was spicy tuna, cucumber, rice, and tempura soft shell crab.  Not something I'd ever normally order as I don't tend to care for soft shell crab, but this was really interesting!

The crab was really nicely tempura'ed, crispy, and crunchy.  Obviously deep fried and with a lot of batter, but it wasn't oily.  The cucumber added another nice crunch.  And then, contrasting with the crunchy elements, was the mushy spicy tuna and rice.  I really liked the contrast of textures at play there.  The spicy tuna was just barely spicy, and it seemed like there was too much rice, as it overpowered the other flavors, and I could barely taste the tuna at all.  The wrapper was unlike anything I'd seen before, it was some form of seaweed.  It got soggy very quickly as the sauce inside the roll saturated it.

Overall, this was creative and fun to eat, and my 8th favorite dish overall.  $6 was a good price for the large handroll.  I wouldn't be opposed to getting it again, but I'd probably try something else instead.
Uni (Santa Barbara and Mendocino), on tofu.  $17.
I mentioned at the start of the meal that I really liked uni.  The others at the sushi bar had either never had uni, or had it once before and didn't like it.  Chef Roger told them that he really wanted them to try it, and that he'd teach them how to eat uni so they could like it.

His instructions were to not bite into it, but rather, just mush it in your mouth.  He demonstrated by trying a piece of both types of uni he had available that night, one from Santa Barbara and one from Mendocino. For the others, he picked the milder, creamier one.  He was going to serve all of us the same uni, but I asked to try both of them, side by side, to compare.  Unfortunately, I lost track of which was which, but one was indeed a lot sweeter and creamier.  Neither had a very strong uni flavor however, and I was pretty disappointed with it.

The uni was served on top of a little piece of tofu, and was dressed with soy sauce and sesame seeds.  The creamy tofu helped make it more user friendly for the beginning uni eaters, and it was interesting to have that texture.  It reminded me a little of the uni crème brûlée sort of dishes we've had lately.  Certainly interesting, but I think I would have preferred standard nigiri.  My dining companion thought there was way too much soy sauce on here, and said that is why we couldn't taste the uni.  It didn't seem overly sauced to me, but I agreed that the uni flavor was far too mild.

My 10th pick of the night.  $17 for the pair of uni seemed pretty high, particularly given the small amount of uni on each.  I'd get this again, but mostly just because I desperately want to find some good uni!
Live scallop part 1.  $16.95.
Next up was the live scallop.  He opened the shells in front of us, and showed us the scallop, and the foot.  He quickly chopped up the foot and sent it away, telling us we'd see it again soon.

The scallops were HUGE.  Probably the biggest I'd ever seen before.  He sliced them up thin, made into nigiri, and served with thin slices of lemon and ponzu sauce to dip into.

The scallop was insanely tender, really soft, and just kinda melted in your mouth.  Slightly sweet, but a very mild flavor.  The ponzu sauce was tart from the vinegar and went well with the scallop, since it didn't have much flavor on its own.

This was clearly fresh and a really great texture, and probably the best raw scallop I've ever had.  My 9th pick of the night.  Not something I'd go out of my way to order again however.
Live scallop part 2: tempura scallop foot, tempura onions, ponzu dipping sauce.
A little while later, the rest of the scallop was brought back to us.  The foot had been chopped up, battered, and turned into tempura, along with some thin slices of onion.  I liked this more than the last live scallop preparation we had at Kiji.

The scallop foot was still pretty chewy.  There is a reason this part is often discarded!  I didn't really like it at all, it reminded me of bad calamari (the sort of calamari that makes people think they don't like it).

But the crispy tempura onions were another story.  So tasty!  While I was there to get raw fish, I certainly filled up on the onions.  Like the other tempura items we received, they were perfectly crisp, not too oily, and the batter was really tasty.  This made me crave onion straws/onion rings and burgers.

Since I loved the tempura onion so much, this dish came in as my 12th favorite of the night, even though I didn't like the tempura scallop.
Fresh wasabi, ginger, fake wasabi.
About this time, we were presented with fresh wasabi, ginger, and fake wasabi.  The fresh wasabi was surprising in that it had a ton of kick, and I usually find fresh wasabi fairly mild.  The ginger was also not standard, in that it was fairly sweet, and not all that pickled.
Halibut Usuzukuri.  $16.95.
Chef Roger asked if everyone liked halibut.  Everyone sorta nodded.  I haven't had much raw halibut, and couldn't really remember if I liked it much or not.  While I was sitting there pondering this, he whipped out a whole halibut, and slapped it down on the board in front of him, and then set to work breaking it down.  It was absolutely fascinating watching him slice it up, making it look so easy!  At one point, one of our fellow diners asked, "Did you just cut that with your fingernail?", because Roger was so fast, that he didn't actually see him use the knife!  Very impressive knife work, and he even gave us a little knife skills lesson along the way.  We learned a lot of random things throughout the night!

He sliced the halibut very, very thin, carpaccio-style, and dressed it with soy sauce and truffle oil.  Since my dining companion does not like truffle oil, he gave me the truffle oil on the side to dip into instead.

The halibut was clearly very fresh, and very tender, but just didn't have a lot of flavor.  It didn't really do anything for me.  The truffle oil dipping sauce was on the sweet side, and I didn't taste any truffle in it.  Nor did my dining companion, who I convinced to try it out.

The best part of this dish was watching the preparation, I wish it had been more successful tasting, but I did enjoy watching the chef do his work, and appreciated how fresh it was.  My 11th pick of the night, and $16.95 seemed a little expensive for something that just wasn't that great.  I would't order again.
Sashimi - 24 pieces.  $56.75.
And next up came a huge platter of sashimi.  I was actually feeling pretty close to being done before we started in on this.  1 big hand roll, 2 types of uni, the scallop nigiri, the tempura, and the halibut made for a light, but close to complete, meal.  He asked the couple next to us how much more they wanted, and they said 4 pieces of nigiri.  He asked us if we preferred sashimi or nigiri, and I said sashimi.  I kinda assumed he'd stick with the 4 pieces, or perhaps just a little more since we were getting sashimi instead.  When he pulled out this massive plate, I knew we were in trouble!

Since I'd expressed that I liked salmon, we got 4 types of salmon.  Since my dining companion said he liked hamachi, we got 3 types of hamachi.  Since he said he liked tuna, we got also got 3 types of tuna.  And some walu and kampachi.  OMG.

The slices were all quite generous as well.  All of the fish was a good, firm texture, served at the proper temperature, not too cold, not too hot.  But, most of it didn't wow me.  Then again, I wouldn't have picked most of this, and didn't really realize what I was getting until it was too late.  The salmons, which is what I was most in the mood for, were the highlight of the night.

The sashimi, listed here in my order of preference:
  1. Copper river salmon.  A really thick piece, full of flavor, and a beautiful dark orange color.  My favorite piece of the night.
  2. Scottish salmon.  This also had a great flavor, and was a really smooth texture.  Not quite as flavorful as the copper river, but a very close second. $5. 
  3. Wild king salmon.  More mild that then other salmons, with far less flavor.  My 4th favorite overall.  $4.50.
  4. Ivory salmon.  Silky smooth, but a little chewy.  My 5th favorite overall.
  5. Inada (baby yellowtail).  Very tender, very mild.  I'm not a huge hamachi fan, but it turns out the babies are tastier than the adults ... my 6th pick overall.  $5.
  6. Kampachi (ambjerack).  Another pretty mild fish, good texture, but not much flavor.  7th pick overall.  $6.
  7. Hamachi (yellowtail).  Fairly standard hamachi, good firm texture, but pretty forgettable.  13th pick overall.  $4.50.
  8. Toro (fatty tuna).  Very buttery, as fatty tuna should be, but not nearly as good as other toro I've had.  14th pick overall.  $11.
  9. Buri (giant hamachi).   Very firm, almost hard to bite into, and rather fishy.  I didn't like this one much at all.  16th pick overall.  $5.50. 
  10. Walu (butterfish).  I normally really like butterfish, and this was nicely buttery, but too fishy.  17th pick overall.  $5.
  11. Maguro (bluefin tuna).  I'm starting to think I just don't care for raw red tuna very much.  This just tasted too minerally for me.  18th pick.  $5.50.
  12. Ahi (big eye tuna).  And even stronger tasting than the maguro.  19th pick.  $4.50.
The salmon were clearly my favorites of the night, and like I said, these were all generous, good cuts of fresh, quality fish, they just really weren't nearly as flavorful as I would like.  Of the sashimi, the only ones that I would order again are the salmon.

Salmon "remix".  $6.
I was insanely full at this point, but the salmon had been the highlights all evening, and I saw Roger preparing this for someone else and it looked fantastic.  How can you say no to amazing salmon?  This was salmon, topped with a little lemongrass gel (I think that is what he said), that he then seared with a blowtorch, and garnished with soy sauce and sesame seeds.

The flavor wasn't as strong as when we'd had it raw, but I loved the slightly grilled flavor it had, and the contrast of the hot outside with the cool inside.  It was perfectly barely seared.

My 3rd favorite piece for the night.
Complimentary dessert: strawberry sorbet.
To finish the meal, we were each given a spoonful of strawberry sorbet.  It was insanely sweet, but had a very nice strawberry flavor.  On the icy side, but that is how sorbet is. I wouldn't have liked this much on its own, but Roger had us each hold out our hand, into which he scooped a little ball of wasabi ice cream (he didn't tell anyone what it was, just told us to eat it).  It had some serious kick and was nice and creamy.  After taking my initial bite on its own, I decided to combine mine with the sorbet, and enjoyed both the ice cream and sorbet more that way, with the wasabi ice cream cutting the sweetness of the sorbet, and the sorbet cutting the bite from the wasabi.

This wasn't really a fantastic dessert or anything, but was unique and unlike the end of any sushi meal I've ever experienced.  And not that I could have eaten any remotely substantial dessert at that point anyway!  15h pick of the night.
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