Wednesday, January 11, 2006
A Great Omen
If Margy and I were asked to pick our favorite restaurant, it would have to be Omen on Thompson St. in NYC.
Some people are puzzled by Omen, because it's a Japanese restaurant that does wonderful things with raw fish but doesn't serve sushi. To us, this is hardly a problem, and we're always looking for a special occasion to give us an excuse to go there. Omen specializes in traditional Kyoto-style cuisine, which features fresh ingredients -- meat, fish, vegetables -- in refined and beautiful presentations. A meal in the long brick-walled room is invariably light, delicious, and really fun.
The illumination, however, is really dim, and we weren't about to use a flash, so apologies for the somewhat dark photo of our fried soba noodle appetizer. A bundle of noodles is wrapped in seaweed and cut into makilike rolls, then set in a bowl of slightly sweet soy-based broth and topped with scallions and slivers of fried yellow squash. Such a simple dish depends on top-quality ingredients, and Omen always comes through. The portions are small, so you can order a fairly wide sampling from the à la carte menu or choose from lovely seasonal prix fixe "dinner courses." Tonight we went à la carte.
As goes for most great restaurants, much of the wonder of Omen is in the details. If you want your palate pounded by dramatic flavors, this might not be the place for you. Witness the miso soup that came with a broiled eel entree and was the first thing we ate. Where many restaurants serve a clear broth with salty clouds of miso paste stirred up from the bottom (I am not knocking this -- I almost always love it), Omen's version is far more subtle and distinct. It isn't very salty; it isn't even very cloudy. And floating in the bowl along with bits of seaweed are delicate sprigs of cilantro, thin slices of sesame-flavored fried tofu, and tiny clumps of slender enoki mushrooms. Not exactly your local take-out joint's miso soup.
The soup set the stage for a progression of dishes that had Margy and me rubbing our hands together with excitement. The centerpiece of our dinner was a gorgeous plate of sashimi that included tuna, salmon, yellowtail, red snapper, fluke (I think), sea urchin, avocado, cucumber, two kinds of seaweed, and shredded daikon. Eating it was like swimming in the ocean. We couldn't get to everything fast enough, yet I grew depressed as I watched it all disappear.
If you love Japanese food and you have an open mind, go. All of your dishes may arrive at once (as is the custom in Japan but can be jarring when you don't expect it), and your sashimi may not come with pickled ginger. But these are minor issues, more than compensated for by the aesthetic and culinary wonders of a meal at Omen.