Long Island chefs that are raising the sushi bar

The foxy lady at Tiga in Port Washington. February 21, 2019. Photo by An Rong Xu Credit: An Rong Xu

Handling tuna is practically a sacrament for Tony San. Every few days, the chef-owner of Torigo in Floral Park gets a call from his “tuna connection,” a wholesaler who specializes in top-quality tuna. On a winter afternoon, between lunch and dinner service, he was unwrapping a toaster oven–sized hunk of bluefin that had just arrived, via JFK, from Spain.

Hefting the fish, he estimated it weighed about 15 pounds, and was off by only a few ounces. Then he went at it with the longest knife in his drawer. Its blade, inscribed with “Torigo,” had been a gift from a customer.

Left: Chef Tony preparing for an omakase meal at Torigo in Floral Park. Top: A large and coveted piece of tuna at Torigo in Floral Park. Bottom: A sashimi platter at Torigo in Floral Park. Photo credit: An Rong Xu

San, who bought this 13-year-old restaurant in 2015, pointed out the leanest meat, garnet in color, the “o-toro,” the richest, pink with intramuscular fat like a prime rib eye, and the “chu-toro,” which occupies the middle ground. When he has such a superb specimen, San is apt to serve a bluefin sampler, a few slices of each type, all leaning against a hillock of shredded daikon, so the diner can appreciate the differences in texture and taste. San is well aware that bluefin, the most prized species of tuna, is being overfished. He said at this time of year, his farmed fish, raised on a diet of sardines, was better—and more expensive—than wild-caught specimens.

“My style is to let the fish taste like what it is.”

Tony San, chef-owner of Torigo

When the tuna had been reduced to so many plastic-wrapped blocks, San gathered the trimmings. Blended with mayonnaise and chili sauce, these would make their way into spicy tuna roll. “My style is to let the fish taste like what it is,” San said. “Yes, I have spicy tuna roll on my menu, but it’s not what Torigo is about.”

One could argue that spicy tuna roll is an exercise in kitchen thrift, but since the texture of the fish is obliterated by mayo and the taste is obscured by chilies, it is reviled by many sushi purists. Spicy tuna roll, however, reigns supreme on Long Island, which is awash in a sea of sushi. Sushi at the supermarket. At the Chinese restaurant. At the steakhouse. At the deli.

This overfamiliarity with sushi has bred, if not contempt, then at least neglect. As connoisseurship has decreased, we are losing what attracted us in the first place: an appreciation for fish so pristine it doesn’t need cooking, and a rigorous aesthetic that is 180 degrees from the freewheeling approach that characterizes so much modern American cooking.

And yet, artistry remains. There are still many chefs who seek out the absolute best fish (whether traditional in Japan or not), who expand the range of flavors that sushi encompasses—even as their printed menus may still bow to popular tastes that dictate a reliance on the triple play of salmon, tuna and yellowtail, for instance, or fealty to the more-is-more, mango-mayo-panko-tobiko school of sushi rolling.

Wedged into a line of storefronts on Jericho Turnpike, Torigo looks like a hundred other Long Island sushi restaurants. But look closer. The neon blackboard lists a dozen daily specials, and aside from the three grades of bluefin tuna, there is bai gai (Japanese sea snails), kanpachi (amberjack), madai (sea bream) and uni (sea urchin) from Maine, California and Japan. San, a traditionalist who likes to play with flavors, serves yellowtail with a little jalapeño or scallion, and kanpachi is topped with a chili yuzu paste.  

Nine miles due north in Port Washington, Tiga keeps an even lower profile. When the restaurant opened in January of this year, not only was there no “grand opening” sign, there was virtually no sign at all. (“Tiga” is discreetly printed in white on the glass transom above the front door; when the lights in the restaurant are on, it’s basically invisible.)

If Tony San’s strategy is to let fish speak for itself, Tiga’s Roy Kurniawan and Dhani Diastika feature fish on lead vocals, backed up with everything from an acoustic guitar to a full orchestra. At Tiga, tuna is cold-smoked, chopped and mixed with sultanas, cilantro, citrusy yuzu zest, miso butter and balsamic-soy reduction. It’s peppered, blackened and served on greens. Kurniawan does make spicy tuna: It’s blended with a combination of American and Japanese mayonnaises and sesame oil, lit by minced Vietnamese chilies.

Kurniawan’s open-hearted, East-meets-West philosophy is made plain on his tattooed arms. A traditional Japanese fish twists around his left, from wrist to beyond the elbow. On the right are inked images of his adopted city, including the iconic Depression-era shot of construction workers eating lunch while seated on a steel beam suspended 69 floors above the ground. All his tattoos were done by Philipus Murdijanto, the only one of Tiga’s three partners who doesn’t work at the restaurant. The men are all from East Java; “Tiga” means “three” in the Indonesian language.

Chef Roy Kurniawan working in the kitchen at Tiga in...

Chef Roy Kurniawan working in the kitchen at Tiga in Port Washington. Credit: An Rong Xu

Kurniawan and Diastika’s style has made them cult sushi figures on Long Island. Both chefs kicked around the tristate area until 2005, when they answered an ad on craigslist. Robert Ehrlich, founder of the snack-food company Pirate’s Booty, was looking for chefs who would make sushi for employees at his Sea Cliff offices, and almost immediately, the plan became more ambitious. Erlich set up a coffeehouse, Sea Cliff Coffee Company, and Kurniawan, Diastika and their team were soon taking over the space in the evenings—first three days a week, then four, then five—to ply their trade. Up until this time, neither chef had strayed very far from traditional sushi, but the unconventional set-up inspired them.

“We began to experiment,” Kurniawan recalled. “We invented new dishes like the Big Mac roll.” That roll—spicy tuna, crab salad, avocado, panko crunch, tobiko, soy sheet and kecap manis (sweet Indonesian soy sauce)—has accompanied them on their journey through Nassau County, most notably at Wansuapona Musu in Sea Cliff, which opened in 2012, lasted until 2017 and reopened briefly, for a few days every week, in 2018.

Left: Chef Roy Kurniawan working in the kitchen at Tiga in Port Washington. Top: The Foxy Lady at Tiga in Port Washington. Bottom: The Sweet Jane at Tiga in Port Washington. Photo credit: An Rong Xu

The evening Tiga opened in Port Washington, the place was mobbed, mostly by Kurniawan-Diastika loyalists who were thrilled with a new menu that included spicy lobster miso soup; Scottish salmon with truffle vinaigrette; cold-smoked tuna tartare with yuzu zest and balsamic soy; and fluke carpaccio with chili paste, truffle oil and yuzu. “I wouldn’t call us a Japanese restaurant,” Kurniawan said. “We are Japanese inspired, with global influences.”

Sushi in the classic Japanese style still prevails, although with a twist at Long Island’s easternmost sushi bar, which occupies a corner of Stirling Sake in Greenport. Akio Kon, one of fewer than a dozen Japanese-born chefs in Nassau and Suffolk, has no interest in innovation for its own sake; his creativity is sparked by the limits of geography.

The network of metropolitan suppliers that keeps Japanese restaurants west of Riverhead stocked with a wide international variety of sushi fish will not make the journey to Greenport. Once a week or so, Kon receives vacuum-sealed horse mackerel or flash-frozen yellowtail, but his main source is the Peconic Bay. It was the local fish that drew Kon to Greenport in the first place; every year, the avid fisherman looks forward to spring, when he becomes his own principal supplier. In the colder months, he relies on Braun Seafood in Cutchogue, which handles both local and international fish. Kon visits several times a week, hand-selecting every specimen.

Chef Akio Kon prepping the fish for dinner service at Stirling...

Chef Akio Kon prepping the fish for dinner service at Stirling Sake in Greenport. Credit: An Rong Xu

Kon’s 40-year-career has taken him from Akita Prefecture, where he was born, to Peru to Panama to Miami to Manhattan, and he has nothing but contempt for most American commercial fishing operations. “On these big boats,” he said, “they just throw the fish around. They keep it on ice too long. They use a shovel.” He put his hands together to form a gentle cup. “In Japan, they handle the fish one at a time. With respect.”

To adhere to the strictest Japanese standards, he has had to use non-Japanese fish. Black sea bass, blackfish (aka tautog), porgy, sea trout, striped bass—these species are rare in Japan but, Kon said, “if it’s fresh, it’s good.” Fortunately for Kon, and for his customers, tuna is landed on Long Island, otherwise there would be none on his menu.

Nanbanzuke, fried fillets that are pickled with rice vinegar, sugar, soy sauce and chilies, is usually made with Japanese mackerel; Kon makes it with local porgy. He’s thankful that monkfish is a local catch because one of his favorite small plates is ankimo, or monkfish liver tied, so it holds its shape, and steamed until it just firms into a silken mass. When cool, Kon serves slices in a puddle of ponzu vinegar, capped with a topknot of grated radish and chilies, “red, like the Japanese maple.”

There’s a limit to what Kon, the only sushi chef at Stirling Sake, can do, for in addition to sushi, he creates small plates designed to accompany sake. Yuki Mori, who opened Stirling Sake in 2015, was formerly the general manager of Sake Bar Decibel in Manhattan’s East Village, and his list of almost 50 imported rice wines may be Long Island’s most extensive. So Kon simply does not have enough hands to offer Japanese omakase, a tasting menu composed of what the chef believes is best on any given day.

At Torigo, omakase marks the pinnacle of Tony San’s craft. Of the four chefs behind the sushi bar, only he prepares the meal that is literally translated as, “I leave it up to you.” On a busy night, while his colleagues take care of other orders, he can handle 15 to 18 such dinners.

Omakase establishes the most direct connection between chef and diner: There is neither menu nor server to mediate the relationship between the two. “It’s a beautiful thing,” San said. “At the bar, I can see the customer’s face.” He pantomimed the reaction of a satisfied diner, smacked his lips, closed his eyes, bowed his head. But aside from the instant gratification, omakase allows the chef to ensure that the diner is eating everything at peak temperature. “As you finish one piece,” he added, “I hand you another bite.”

San explained that in a perfect piece of sushi, the rice temperature is different from the fish temperature, and the fish temperature varies according to the fish. “For toro, room temperature is perfect. Mackerel should be a little colder.” The attention to detail also extends to the density of the rice under each piece. “With octopus, the rice needs to be a little tight; you want it to be looser with tuna.”

Born in Fujian, in Southern China, San immigrated to the United States when he was 17, and his first job was at a sushi bar on the Upper East Side. The chef there noted that San “came early, left late,” and invited the young busboy to join his team. His classical apprenticeship began with the preparation of sushi rice and he never looked back. “I never thought about working in a Chinese restaurant,” he said. “I think I have a Japanese soul. I know a lot of the Chinese-owned Japanese restaurants do this Asian fusion, but I never wanted to do that.”

The chief criticism of Asian fusion is not that it combines cuisines, but that it often does so ham-handedly, in the naked pursuit of mass appeal. And that’s why Tiga stands out. Kurniawan and Diastika serve not only sushi, but salads and hot and cold small plates. Yet, their menu is not a mindless jamming together of egg rolls and hand rolls and pad thai, but instead the cohesive style of two accomplished, well-traveled chefs.

Kurniawan, for instance, discovered on a trip to Japan that even in the birthplace of sushi, “restaurants are keeping up with modern trends.” Japanese chefs, he said, were curing and cold-smoking fish, aging it in the freezer which “breaks up some of the proteins, giving more umami flavor.”

Back home, the two chefs are also passionate diners whose favorite restaurants include Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Perry St in the West Village, Traif, the global small platerie in Williamsburg and the omakase-only Gaijin in Astoria. On a visit to a now-closed Thai restaurant in Queens, they tasted a dish of raw shrimp with a lot of chilies and lime vinaigrette. “We loved that dish, and it inspired us.” They swapped out the shrimp for slices of raw scallop, which are fanned out in the base of a wide bowl, then dotted with sliced bird’s eye chilies, basil seeds (an ingredient used in Indonesia, as well as Southeast Asia and India), powdered miso anointed with droplets of parsley oil and, finally, micro-arugula and edible flowers.

Kurniawan’s inspiration also comes from within. “Lots of nights,” he said, “I fall asleep thinking up a new dish. The next day I’ll make it at the restaurant. Sometimes it’s not so good, but sometimes it is.” And the sushiverse just expanded.

Restaurant information

TIGA: 43A Main St., Port Washington, 516-918-9993, tigany.com

TORIGO: 196 Jericho Tpke., Floral Park, 516-352-1116, torigorestaurant.com

STIRLING SAKE: 477 Main St., Greenport, 631-477-6782, stirlingsake.com

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