Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sweet (and Slightly Salty) Relief

"I need sushi. It's been long enough."

Margy had been hearing some variation on those words for a couple weeks now, and it was time to do something about it. So we made a reservation at Shumi, our favorite Japanese restaurant in Jersey.

I was ready to go all out. We took a seat at the bar, and, with Margy's permission, I asked the chef/owner, Ike, to just start feeding us. "We like everything," I said, and I meant it. After a soft-shell crab salad took the edge off ever so slightly, Ike presented us with a magnificent plate of sashimi as a prelude to the sushi that would follow.

Each fish made us swoon. Clockwise from top left: white tuna; toro; Japanese horse mackerel, or aji, dressed with a wonderful mince of ginger and scallion; tai, a sea bream that's somewhat similar to red snapper; sweet shrimp from Maine, the first of the season and tonight's special; and squid that Ike scored with a knife and rolled around seaweed, spicy tuna, and cucumber.

What followed were greatly conflicting impulses to devour it all on the spot and slow down to a crawl in order to savor every morsel. I didn't want the moment to end. After the sashimi, as a parade of sushi began, with Ike handing Margy and me two pieces each at a time until we reluctantly asked him to stop, I was struck with one of the reasons why a meal of sushi and sashimi is among my very favorites: It's an ephemeral experience.

And in so many ways. Take, for instance, the pieces of seared salmon with spicy cilantro dressing that Ike gave us near the end of the feast. These hit just about every note that sushi can sing, and in perfect harmony -- the char on the border of the fish gave it wonderful smoky flavor, while the uncooked interior was briny tasting and refreshing, with the perfect meaty but tender texture. The dressing tingled on the tongue. And the rice was just right, meaning it wasn't tightly packed and had a presence of its own. One piece of sushi offered all this -- but there was only one piece for each of us. Sure, we could have said, "Ike, do that again!" But what would we have missed? Seared white tuna with sriracha sauce? That would have been a crime.

So the pleasure of each incredible bite was fleeting, and the wonder of the whole meal was fleeting too, since it's just not possible for us to eat like this every day, or even every week. And though a good sushi meal is supremely satisfying, it also comes with a certain lightness when it's all over, which only contributes to the bittersweet feeling. After I eat a good steak, I feel full and don't want anything more than maybe a nip of brown liquor and a couple bites of dessert. After I eat a good sushi meal, I'm thinking, I could do that again RIGHT NOW. I know it's time to stop -- my wallet knows, at least -- but I want to continue, and the feeling lingers. I would say my number one, taken-for-granted eating rule is to keep things varied, yet for years I've noticed that when I have a memorable sushi meal, I invariably wake up the next day wanting to eat the stuff again. I think it's addictive.

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