43A Main St., Port Washington
SERVICE: Friendly, unpredictable during rush, which is almost always
AMBIENCE: Exciting, convivial, loud, frenetic
ESSENTIALS: Open Tuesday to Thursday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10 p.m. Credit cards accepted; street parking; wheelchair accessible
A meal at Tiga is thrilling, sexy, cramped and perilous. Can’t picture it? Imagine a hurricane is coming, and you’ve decided to ride out the storm at a J.Lo concert where they serve really good sushi. Better?
Such are the trials and tribulations of a happening place, and Tiga is nothing if not happening. From opening day in January, this Japanese-not-really, sushi-but-not-just eatery, the brainchild of Indonesian chefs Roy Kurniawan and Dhani Diastika, has been a veritable free-for-all, no small feat in a neighborhood with five more sushi joints within a five-block radius.
Rarely does one find an empty table under the pressed tin ceiling of its dim, narrow, 40-seat dining room, and the bar’s tightly packed stools are usually occupied too, in my case by a few privileged tweens, two women discussing vampire face-lifts, and an elderly couple who’d had it with Kevin.
Be that as it may, together we formed a sturdy barricade around the chefs, for whom “sorry for the wait” is a mantra, Kurniawan’s broad smile disarming all but the whiniest diner. He and Diastika appreciate their patrons’ eagerness to follow the pair wherever they lead, most recently to the now-defunct Musu in Sea Cliff.
Like midcareer rockers keen to avoid stagnation, though, their menu is a canny mix of old hits and new. There’s lobster miso soup, for one, in which plenteous knobs of sweet meat float motionless in an umami broth, paralyzed by its profundity. Any foodstuff that follows — Tiga’s wreath-like Scottish salmon, say — will seem vapid by comparison. Still, you can’t help appreciating the precision with which rice pearls, microgreens and capers are tweezed onto the plate — never play Operation against these guys — or the slivers of fish that are as translucent as breath strips and dissolve just as quickly.
The chili scallops, an ill-conceived marriage of strangers from opposite ends of Flavortown, are a misfire, but Tiga quickly rebounds with smoked tuna tartare served in a gold tin alongside toast points, easily the best canned tuna I’ve ever had. Ba-dum-bum.
The lobster roll, a tangy slurry of meat, celery, apple and egg yolk, is delectable but a mess. Not so the black cod miso, a masterpiece by any measure. Kurniawan’s been serving this dish since the Sea Cliff days, and I’ve a strong hunch it will someday land high up in his obit. Rendered deliquescent by saikyo miso, the cod arrives atop broccoli rabe, a single magenta-colored Q-tip cantilevered off the top. (Wait, no, that’s a pickled ginger shoot. Told you it was dark.)
“The rolls are why we’re here,” confides one half of the couple to my right, a woman with whom I’ve now bonded so tightly, I myself have had it with Kevin. Everyone is here for the rolls, it seems, especially Kurniawan and Diastika, who labor mightily on them six nights a week, often flame-kissing their creations alongside two more chefs doing the same thing. Hair-sprayed diners are cautioned to keep their distance, as you won’t see this many men wielding blowtorches outside a soldering convention.
Do the goofily named logs — sugar mountain, Billy Joel, foxy lady — live up to advance praise? They do. Consider the big mac, a zillion-layered construction cut not into rounds but squares. Much culinary stagecraft is contained within these seagoing mini lasagnas, each bite unleashing a frantic sequence of crisp and chew, sweet and salty, comfort and challenge. Shapeshifting sushi it is, an Everlasting Gobstopper for our times.
I couldn’t resist smuggling a few squares home to examine further because, well, this is what passes for fun when you don’t have cable. Scraping off the furikake and tobiko, burrowing through a sod of spicy tuna, I dug deep into rich lodes of avocado, crunch and crab salad, past slicks of sweetened soy sauce. Did the source of Tiga’s sushi’s mysterious appeal remain elusive? It did. Which is why I’ll go back again and again, braving long queues, noise, darkness and strangers’ confidences.
Its charms are many, its low points few, its heights as dizzying as Hurricane J.Lo.