The dish on Long Island's restaurant and food scene.
When I was growing up, my best friend was Japanese and her mother — whose lasagna was as good as her sukiyaki — was the culinary idol of my childhood. Perhaps that’s where my unreasoning love of authentic Japanese restaurants comes from.
Unfortunately (for me), authentic Japanese restaurants are rare on Long Island. When I say “authentic,” I mean serving only traditional Japanese food — no wonton soup or pad Thai or Malaysian curry. Of the million or so sushi outlets on Long Island, there probably are fewer than a dozen that are owned by Japanese people and stick to Japanese cooking.
When I have a Japanese yen, I usually head for Kosio in Carle Place, Taka in Westbury or Nagashima in Jericho. Last night, it was Nagashima. How I grooved on my chirashi. No bells and whistles (or flashing lights or orchids or banana leaves) here. Just impeccably fresh, immaculately sliced fish on properly seasoned rice. Along with the tuna, yellowtail, salmon and omelet, this chirashi featured small pieces of lushly textured, cream-colored fish. This was the elusive white tuna. When you see “white tuna” on a sushi menu, chances are that it’s actually escolar or Chilean sea bass — fish that are bright white, not the more roseate hue of albacore, real white tuna.
I struck up a conversation with Makoto Kobayashi, owner and sushi chef. He emigrated from Japan more than 30 years ago to take a job as a tempura chef at Inagiku, the opulent Japanese restaurant in the Waldorf Astoria hotel that was the first in Manhattan to serve sushi. Kobayashi opened Nagashima in 1990 and he tries to hold to the standards of Japanese cooking.
He has regular customers who sit at his sushi bar and learn about the provenance of the fish, the difference in taste between summer fluke and winter fluke. He’ll break out the fresh wasabi and use a sharkskin paddle to grate it, he’ll expound on the finer points of sake. In short, he will try to convey to his customers the great culinary tradition that he was trained in.
But there are frustrations. Recently a customer came in and asked for a tempura-banana roll. He had some bananas on hand and he made one. I watched as he prepared one of Nagashima’s signature “Happy New Year rolls” for a takeout order: It started with spicy tuna — a mayonnaise mixture that completely masks the quality of the fish. He draped the spicy-tuna roll with tuna and salmon, then placed it in a takeout container where it received showers of multicolored tobiko (roe), panko crumbs, scallions, seaweed and more spicy mayonnaise.
I wanted to send him a condolence note.
Nagashima Japanese Restaurant is at 12A-1 Jericho Tpke., Jericho, 516-338-0022, nagashimali.com.