In the Fare Minded column in the July 9 Weekend section, which is printed in advance, the name of Kaz Okochi, chef-owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro, is misspelled. (Published 7/9/04)
A SEISMIC shift is taking place in fusion food, and particularly in the kingdom of sushi. Where once the very definition of "fusion" was the combination of Asian ingredients and European technique, now there is a growing interest in using Western ingredients -- foie gras, tomatoes, cheese, jicama, corn, ham, nuts -- in the preparation of Japanese food, but in traditional style.
This development of what is being called "original" or "creative" sushi is also sort of a subtle defensive campaign against the maki-mania that has inured Americans to tasteless rice, clumsily cut and ill-proportioned ingredients and flavor-obliterating chili paste. The National Sushi Society has for several years sponsored a contest among its American members to encourage the preservation of traditional rules of sushi technique, philosophy and hygiene, a competition that eventually leads up to the so-called Sushi Olympics in Tokyo.
This year, the association expanded the competition to include an original sushi category inspired by the huge success of a pro-am, all-ages contest launched in 2001 by London's popular Matsuri High Holborn that has produced (on the amateur side) sushi eggs Benedict (smoked salmon nigiri topped with quail eggs and hollandaise), "Tuti Sushi Cake" designed by an 11-year-old (layers of rice, seaweed, cucumber, apple, mozzarella and a little orange peel) and "Spanish sushi" with spicy anchovies, arugula and red bell pepper.
Jeff Ramsey, who has competed here and who in April entered the original sushi competition in New York, has developed a number of creative sushi recipes for Signatures restaurant, dishes that reflect both the high-visual style of star chef Nobu (Nobuyuki Matsuhisa) and the deconstructed-food movement associated with new-Catalan cult hero Ferran Adria. (Ramsey is moving to Cafe Atlantico to work with Adria disciple Jose Ramon Andres, whose "Minibar" style Ramsey's clearly resembles, but he will continue to monitor Signatures' sushi menu.) Ramsey had an advantage over many of the other New York competitors, thanks to a rigorous background in technique -- he began at Bethesda's Tako Grill, one of the first sushi association member restaurants -- and his sense of proportion is still an important element in his recipes.
Among Ramsey's best improvisations have been a delicate "deconstructed tuna roll," a cigarillo-size tube of paper-thin jicama with tuna tartare and a little plug of "gelee" distilled from wasabi, soy sauce and rice vinegar; lightly tempura-fried cherry tomatoes with blue cheese "foam"; and ceviche-style engawa (fluke-fin membrane) cured in yuzu with finely chopped red onion. His take on sunomono, traditional seafood in vinegar, bathes octopus, red clam, king crab, shrimp and lobster claw in a clear "gazpacho water" (filtered tomato and cucumber juices with rice vinegar).
Ramsey frequently plays with texture, particularly a secret crunch: One night he used smoked salmon as wrapping for smoked salmon mousse, asparagus and cream cheese with toasted bagel crumbs; and rolled jicama, tuna and scallions in fried potato slivers and served it with a mirin "remoulade." Among vegetarian rolls: avocado and jicama rolled in crushed sesame seed, hazelnuts and pulverized parched corn; and sun-dried tomato, avocado and spinach with honey-sesame sauce.
He uses Thai fish sauce, cilantro and chili oil in his soft-shell crab roll; and the traffic-light slashes of beet oil and chive-garlic soy sauce beneath the kobe beef roll is a jolt. His palate cleanser is a hoot -- long thin tubes of watermelon flesh on a skewer. With its dab of wasabi like an eye, it's a cross between a cleverly camouflaged walking stick bug and a party favor.
While some of Ramsey's original sushi is on the Signatures menu (and others appear as nightly specials), there is more familiar nigiri as well. Signatures also offers most of its sushi, though not all the specialty items, for half-price in the bar and lounge.
Incidentally, if you're curious about entering a recipe in the Original Sushi Competition 2005 in London, visit www.sushi-competition.com.
SPEAKING OF signatures: What he calls "original small dishes" or sometimes "free-style Japanese" cooking has been the hallmark of Kaz Okuchi at Kaz Sushi Bistro for several years, although he does not think of it as fusion in the trendy sense. He considers his food authentic and solidly based in traditional technique, but with a modern twist. It works fabulously on both levels. His nigiri of plum wine-infused duck foie gras slices over rice topped with a delicate plum wine jelly could stand up to any foie gras treatment in town. The tuna sushi with black truffle is not so immediate a sensual rush, but the peculiar, almost corrupt mustiness of the fungi calls forth a deep-seated sweetness in the fish. His sea trout "napoleon" of chopped fish tossed with peanuts, cilantro and soy-ginger dressing and sandwiched between crispy wonton skins, is one of his most popular small plates and much fun.
Kaz's menu usually includes a dozen or so nightly specials, and among recent offerings was a fine early-summer salmon tartare with fennel and eggplant. Like the tuna, soft-shell crab tempura reveals its sweeter side when dressed not with soy sauce but with a rich balsamic reduction. His version of sashimi gazpacho, though coincidentally similar to Ramsey's, is actually less traditional in flavor, because the broth is much more tomato-concentrated. The sweet shrimp with ajo de blanca (almond sauce) is another Catalan flavor learned from Jose Andres. Okuchi is also capable of a joke, as evidenced by the "no-carb tuna sushi" with thyme-flavored miso sided with yuzu aioli.
Okuchi's use of herbs -- he infuses high-quality soy sauce with rosemary, basil, thyme and so on -- is particularly attractive when it comes to sashimi, because it plays up the lighter, fresher spectrum of the fish flavors.
Both Signatures and Kaz Sushi Bistro offer a nice variety of premium sakes; those may not be "new style" in Japan, but it's still a welcome rarity here.