Norihiko Manabe’s Tsukushi

In food on 01/31/2009 at 1:01 pm

Donguri has been kicked to the curb! Last night, we encountered something close to rapture at Tsukushi, a homestyle bar recommended by The Japanese Food Report and other reviewers on Yelp. We had been disappointed the last time we were at Donguri for a birthday dinner, so we couldn’t really fork over that kind of cash on it again, hoping it might return to its former glory. But now, all is well in the land of the rising sun, for Tsukushi has saved the day.

Hidden in a dark southeast nook of 41st street and 2nd avenue, looking very much like the service entrance of the bright and shiny deli cafeteria on the corner, Tsukushi perches like a lap cat at the heels of the glowering United Nations building. There’s a long dark awning stretching out to the sidewalk now, beckoning the throngs of Japanese businessmen from midtown and visiting from overseas. The best Japanese restaurants cater to this crowd, strategically plunked down in this neighborhood, from ramen parlors to highest end sushi bars. But somehow, Tsukushi still managed to find its own little spot, away from the cluster, on an almost deserted street after business hours, and very unassuming. The only clue to the magical world within are the horizontal planks making up the heavy wooden door and sturdy gesture of a large square door pull. There are no windows in this sub-basement sake and shoju speakeasy.

The menu is non-existent, for first-timers. Omakase is it, chef’s choice, six courses, with optional dessert to finish. Although we requested a table, we were nudged to take a seat at the bar when we first entered, and the guy behind the bar looked up, sizing us down. He, in loose, grubby attire, turned out to be the chef, intently studying our reaction to every dish he presented via the girl shuttling between the bar and the tables. We were asked if we ate fish, but what she failed to ask was if the other half ate potatoes. All night, the chef opened up various Rubbermaid tubs and fished things out with chopsticks. The only times he disappeared behind the noren, curtains covering a doorway to the kitchen, were to make our soup and fish dishes.

The decor was an afterthought, like most good dives. I guess, in retrospect, Donguri was too good to be true, since there, each detail, from the series of tiny paintings on the wall, to the handmade chopstick holders, were perfectly imperfect. Here, I could identify where in Chinatown the tableware was purchased and chuckle at the kitsch, almost second-hand look of all the veneers and displays. Throughout our meal, the greatest hits of the 80s were blaring just a touch loud.

Japanese food, it seems, is all about the pomp and circumstance. The greatest export from the country is the clever and gorgeous packaging. At Tsukushi, however, all the energy is focused on the morsels of food in the plain small bowls and rectangular plates. It’s like the recipes in my Japanese Country Cookbook, very few ingredients with the highest regard for quality and inherent flavor in every bite. The Japanese are definitely the first hippie crunchy granola lovers.

Our feast:
1. Simmered dish – thin, dark green beans with bonito flakes, the ends of the cut beans pointed up, teepee-style, in a pool of dashi. This is the broth of Japan, a country more-obsessed with soy than China or Taiwan combined. The beans were a tad overcooked for me, but much enjoyed by the other half.

2. Ramen – whitish chopped yam noodle with pink roe (tasted like crab, but probably fish). This was the dish of the night, so simple yet bursting with flavor, the ultimate example of the artistry of the cuisine.

My version: Blanch your favorite noodle (if you can’t find the yam/sweet potato version), and coat with high-quality roasted sesame oil just until they don’t stick. You never overdo anything in Japanese food. Sprinkle with your favorite fish egg and mix well. Top with chopped scallions and spritz with soy sauce.

3. Sashimi  trio – shrimp, a white and firm, and a pinkish soft fish on shiso leaf. (proper way to use shiso: wrap with shredded daikon around one piece of fish, dip the bundle in your soy sauce and eat). I was dismayed that the wasabi was the typical horseradish nose stinger, not the authentic, mildy euphoric root. Some of the pieces rested on a sliced half-circle of lemon, which added a tangy element to the flesh, a welcome addition of flavor. I’d also never had raw shrimp; they are buttery, creamy, and sweet (not mushy!).

4. Soup – dashi (again!) with minimalist wedge of shittake mushroom, fried shishito pepper, and one largish cake of sesame milk tempura tofu – goma. If it weren’t for the QQ broth-soaked tempura covering the tofu, I would say it was too gummy. But that was its saving grace. If you break up the tofu, it reminds me of the tofu flower dessert.

5. Fish – grilled 1/2″ cod steak with teriyaki. I’m usually anti-sweet soy sauce, but the char of the grill was a louder note, so I didn’t really mind. By this time, we were actually getting full.

6. Dim sum – potato salad, shu-mai enrobed in glutinous rice. Two little dumplings with a spiced pork and onion filling, with seasoned glutinous rice instead of wonton wrappers. I was a little startled by the side of Kewpie? mayonnaise-laden egg and potato salad. Heavy on heavier? The other half did not touch that part at all. I had to apologize profusely to the server about that. I didn’t really like it either, too mayo-rich, but I was taught to always finish my plate. According to tradition, Japanese end their meals with onigiri (rice ball), cha-han (fried rice) or ochazuke (tea over rice with savory toppings). This was the chef’s modern interpretation.

7. Dessert – brown tea mousse (hojicha). Unfortunate naming. We had read that they actually have guests who only come in to eat the ramen. So I asked the server if this was possible. She said no, only after 12am, that you must eat the omakaze otherwise. But when we first walked in at 6p, an older gentleman at the bar was just sipping one large bowl of soup, with daikon, according to the server, and downing large shot glasses full of half-shochu, half-hot water mixed with preserved plum beverages. This place is the spot for other chefs to unwind after their own restaurants are closed, so I guess unless you are a regular, no off-the-menu ordering for you. Someday, I want to be part of the Cheers crowd.

Back to the dessert. So, we were too stuffed by now to accept an offer to order udon, ramen or soba, so we queried about desserts. They have green tea and black sesame ice cream, not homemade (grudgingly admitted). But their brown tea mousse was, so that’s what we picked. I don’t think I’ve ever had mousse, given that it’s in the suspect category of potential mush and pudding. But this was such a revelation! Nutty and velvety, lighter than ice cream but still rich and palate cleansing. Let me get our resident dessert chef on this right now.

Ingredients for my version:
1 packet gelatin
1.5 cup heavy cream
3 eggs, separated
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup, 2 Tbsp tea leaves, very strong brewed hojicha (adjust to find your ratio. We’ve also tried jasmine and ti kuan yin)
1/3 cup milk
Pinch salt

Melt gelatin in 3 tbsp of hot water; stir until dissolved.

Whip cream in a bowl until med-soft peaks form in metal bowl. Copper is best. Set aside.

Combine egg yolks and almost all of sugar in a bowl and mix well. Add hojicha, milk and gelatin mixture and stir until smooth. Transfer to a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture starts to thicken. Do not boil.

Remove from heat and pour mixture onto whipped cream and sit bowl over a bowl of iced water and stir gently to cool.

Whip egg whites with remaining sugar and pinch of salt. Fold egg white mixture into yolk mixture. Divide evenly between 6 ramekins and refrigerate, cover until set.


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