Last night I confronted the two faces of Makoto Kobayashi. The owner of Nagashima Japanese restaurant was alone behind the sushi bar. I drew up a chair and put myself in his capable hands.
He told me that the mackerel was particularly lush this time of year and used a small fillet of it as the centerpiece of an extraordinary dish: He placed the fish on a small wooden board and used a hand-held butane torch to lightly sear it — and infuse it with a hint of wood smoke. He cut the fillet crosswise and laid it upon a bed of julienned cucumber. He showered the fish first with thinly sliced sweet onion and then with chopped scallions. Over that, a big pinch of shredded daikon radish that he had marinated in ponzu sauce and then a good sprinkling of sesame seeds. He surrounded this savory pileup with quartered tomatoes (a Japanese variety) that he grew himself.
My first course accomplished, Kobayashi attended to orders from the dining room. He is a traditionalist, having apprenticed in Japan to a master sushi chef whose rice comes from its own dedicated paddy, who has his own tea grown for him. Not for Kobayashi, the baroque American-style sushi rolls that favor huge, sweet, crunchy and fruity over nuanced restraint.
Nevertheless, he wants to please his customers and so he embarked on a gargantuan roll of his own design, “lobster tempura roll” in which a whole deep-fried lobster tail is wrapped with lettuce, encased in rice and then pelted with tempura flakes, tobiko, spicy mayonnaise and some sweet sauce for good measure.
Then it was back to my dinner, a platter showcasing both toro (belly) and regular bluefin tuna, fresh scallop, lightly seared salmon and local fluke — but the thin, ribbed edge of the fluke, the deckle if you will, that lies where the flesh meets the fin. Instead of a lump of commercial wasabi (which is actually a paste made from common horseradish, mustard and green food coloring), Kobayashi was grating the real thing, a precious root imported from Japan that can go for more than $100 per pound.
Then Kobayashi picked up an order for an “Alaskan dream roll (fake crab salad, avocado, tuna, etc. etc.) and I averted my eyes, as I would have from a concert pianist being forced to play “Mandy.”