Saturday, December 20, 2008
My First Warm Rice Omakase: Echigo
Nozawa-style sushi has been on my list for some time in all its saucy, warm rice glory. Sushi Nozawa, the home of the original "Sushi Nazi" Chef Nozawa, has been spit out apprentice sushi chefs left and right. Sasabune here, Sushi Wasabi there. I decided to go to Echigo because it has a reputation being a cheaper, more low-end Nozawa sushi restaurant. I wanted to try the warm rice sushi first at an affordable restaurant before going all-out into Sushi Nazi territory.
I felt uncomfortable taking pictures at the Echigo sushi bar. The interior and exterior, part of a strip mall, doesn't scream high-end sushi. Also, since I came to Echigo to celebrate, I wasn't in a photojournalism mood. I was however, in the mood for a glass of jun shimeharitsu junmai ginjo, my favorite junmai at Tokyo Table's sake night. It was clearly as aromatic and crisp as I remembered, no harshness going down, and only a pleasant rice taste lingered on my palate.
At Echigo, the sushi bar is reserved for omakase only patrons. I had braced myself for the sticker price beforehand, and I didn't think I could get a good enough experience outside of omakase. What did bother me was that the omakase was a set course of one sashimi, eight nigiri sushi, and a blue crab handroll. The price is determined based on what's available. So far, my omakase experiences have always been "keep on coming till my stomach or wallet bursts." In the end, I think we received more than the eight pieces of nigiri, but I was still a Double-Double hungry afterward (after the Jungle Food Marathon, I'll measure satiety in In-n-Out Double-Doubles).
The sashimi course was actually three plates, a baby abalone, abalone liver and soft squid stuffed with blue crab. I've never seen a pretty little abalone shell so small, and biting through the crunchy flesh, I felt slightly guilty that whoever farmed it didn't wait for it to reach maturity. Unlike veal, which I have no qualms about eating, there's a catch limit on abalone. I'd rather wait for it to grow fully before adding it to the annual quota. Thought I'd be compassionate for the abalone--nope, it's a shellfish. I'm just thinking in economic terms.
The abalone liver tasted clamy and warm, not a particular inviting combination. Plus the raw taste of iron, which is always a liver deal-breaker, turned me off. Soft squid filled with crab could've just been a plate of blue crab. As I will discuss later with the blue crab handrolls, the crab was the star and the squid merely the container.
Our first nigiri was some surprisingly lean toro. None of that melt-in-your mouth, make you pray to Tuna heaven, deliciousness. The engawa (halibut fin muscle) was served warm, strange since I don't think it added anything to the fish. In fact, I could hardly taste any fish under all that sauce. Such a shame considering my favorite sushi is engawa. The hotate (scallop) tasted strangely more like a fish than a scallop.
Now the fish got a little more interesting. This was my first experience with sayori (needle fish), but again I couldn't taste any of the fish itself because of the heavy use of warm dashi sauce. As far as I could tell, needle fish doesn't have a distinct flavor of its own. Next, I got a pinkish fish that I could only understand as aji no kanpachi. It tasted like kanpachi although I'm not sure what "aji no" means. The chef put a large dollop of yuzu kosho pepper on the fish, giving it a spicy, citrus finish.
This was my first ono (butterfish) served raw. The chef served it with a small dab of sweet miso in the center. Its flavor resembled the miso-cured butterfish I had at Asia de Cuba. I guess ono and miso are a popular pair, although I think the fish has a memorable flavor by itself that may not be supplemented with sauce. The aji (Spanish or horse mackerel) felt cold and lifeless. It had no elasticity biting through the fish. I enjoyed the kinmedai (Golden-eye Snapper) and the spicy skipjack, but both had no memorable attributes besides sweet and tart respectively.
After a service of mostly lackluster, though somewhat exotic, sushi, the night culminated in the famous blue crab handroll. I could sing praises to the temaki, which I fondly recalled for days after the dinner. As far as I could tell, it was simply outstanding crab meat, but it tasted so rich I wondered if there was a secret mayonnaise addition. Echigo even offers a lunch combination of eight pieces of sushi and a blue crab handroll for $13. That would be quite a steal. In total, my omakase experience came out to about $48 pp plus drinks.
None of the sushi was terrible, but besides the blue crab, nothing seemed to stand out either. One complaint I had was that I couldn't taste the fish in some of the nigiri. Either it was masked by sauce or the fish itself just wasn't that flavorful. When it comes to sushi, I guess I like to keep it simple. I had the warm rice, and while it didn't detract too much from the sushi, it didn't seem to add anything to the food. I would be willing to try one of the higher end Nozawa places, but for now, Echigo's fine by me.
12217 Santa Monica Blvd, Ste 201
Omakase ranges. Mine came out to $48 pp, but it can only go up from there.