kamitori sushi is dead, long live kamitori sushi!

IMG_7815 IMG_7814Had my last delicious sushi at Kamitori last night, on Chef Masa Itai’s last night before the joint closes for personal health reasons. Since it’s summer, I had to nibble on eggplant tempura, and I opted for the chef’s choice and a side of rather glorious silvery aji (horse mackerel) whose name I remember from a Japanese friend swooning about it: aji wa aji (horse mackerel is tasty)!

The chef has been battling hand problems for quite some time that make it very hard to press and turn sushi.  Without hesitation, I agree that he’s making the right decision, but it’s such a loss for Eugene it’s hard not to mourn.

The good news is that he’s decided to reopen after some rest and reconfiguration of the space as a coffee shop featuring Japanese breakfast pastries.  The planned opening is in the second week of July.  This, too, is sure to be excellent.  Masa has been trained in a number of cuisines and stations, so be sure to sample his wares.  The location next to the bus station at 11th and Willamette will prove to be advantageous for morning commuters, I think.  He’ll be open in the morning and afternoons six days a week.  Try the Kamitori website soon for more information (nothing’s up yet).

I’m deeply grateful for the quality and purist style of sushi Masa brought to town.  It was a wake-up call for many of us that Eugene can have nice things, and that there are enough people in town to appreciate excellent quality and simple and traditional Japanese food, and restaurateurs who forge forward with their principles for good clean high-quality food, even though it’s not the moneymaker of the masses.

Masa taught many new diners how much different sushi can be if we just experience the flavors of the sea and hold back on the garish rainbow rolls with fried bits and sweet sauce, but he also taught more experienced sushi lovers how to appreciate rice that didn’t have the compacted life squeezed out of it and soup that was freshly made from real ingredients.  I’ve sampled his homemade pickles and herbs and we’ve chatted many times about Japanese preservation and particular kinds of special fish that he endeavored to bring to the restaurant.  I’ll miss it very much and hope someone will come to fill the niche, even if they won’t be able to fill his shoes!

Masa did mention to me that he’s thinking of occasionally — perhaps monthly — hosting sushi nights once his hand has a chance to heal a bit.  So for those of you who are fans of mackerel, firefly squid, cod milt, and all the squirmy bits have no fear.

Good luck and thanks for everything, Chef!

pickled ginger for locavores

Amazed to see a big tub of beautiful, pristine young ginger at the Groundwork Organics stand on Saturday morning.  I’ve long been dissatisfied with the preservatives in pale pink Japanese pickled ginger (gari), the Tonto to the Lone Ranger of sushi, so on the rare occasion I can find some new ginger in season, I make my own.  It’s crucial not to use the fibrous, older storage-ready ginger with the beige skin, since it will be too tough (I know from experience).  Instead, use the stuff that appears once a year or so in Japanese markets.  AND NOW IN EUGENE, WOO!

Groundwork should probably still have fresh ginger knobs for another week, judging from what they had left.  Don’t hesitate.  Ginger can be profitably frozen as-is.  You’ll lose the texture, but the taste when grated is just a bit muted, so use a little more.  I usually grate it while still frozen.

The pickling solution for the following recipe is rather mild.  You can use this ginger as you would fresh ginger, too.  I think the salt and vinegar just add a nice mild pop to the flavor.  It’s great in fried rice.

To achieve the pink color one sees in the commercial pickled ginger at sushi restaurants, don’t use red food coloring, as they do.  Instead, add a slice of beet briefly to the pickling solution, or carefully trim the darker pink base of the stem, if you have it left on your knob of ginger, and add the trim to the top of the jar.  The pink stem isn’t really edible because it’s too fibrous, so just be sure to remove it.  That’s what I’m using above.

Pickled Young Ginger

Makes half-pint

  • 1/2 lb. chunk of fresh ginger
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/3 c. rice vinegar (unseasoned)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoon water
  • slice of red beet or dark pink outer rim of ginger (optional)

Wash, trim, and rub skin off young ginger with the tip of a spoon. Using a mandoline or Japanese slicer, slice ginger into paper-thin bite-sized pieces.  Salt the slices and let sit on the counter for an hour or so.  Drain off liquid and pack in half-pint canning jar or heat-proof container.  Bring rest of ingredients to a boil, then pour over ginger slices.  Optional: add a slice of dark beet or the layer of dark pink ginger for color to the liquid as it boils, then discard before pouring over ginger.  Let cool, then refrigerate for at least a week before using to develop flavors.  Should keep for several months refrigerated.

think pink

Finally, beautiful weather.  I celebrated Earth Day with the fuchsia tones of my blooming azaleas, beets as long as my arm, and jeweled sushi.  We weeded the garden and planted more seed, including poppies, carrots, leaf celery, dill, and borage.

I took advantage of the beet stems and greens, something I highly suggest.  Made beet stem pickles using my pickled chard stem recipe, but the beet stems are stringy, so it’s best to chop them up.  I was thankful I thought to experiment with a chopped quick pickle relish using the leftover vinegar and bits of stems, spring onion, carrot, dill flowers, and fennel seed.  Made a terrific addition to bean tacos, a barley salad, and salmon.

The mushrooms, beets, and bright pink radishes all came from the Lane County Farmers Market on Saturday.  The sushi was yet another delicious meal from Kamitori.  Chef Masa worked with the Cinema Pacific staff to host a dinner reception after Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about a 3-Michelin-star sushi restaurant’s 85-year-old chef in Tokyo.  If you haven’t been to Kamitori, on Willamette and 11th, you really should go and experience Japanese sushi.  It’s unique in Eugene.  See my review in the Register-Guard by following the links here.

slugs, mollusks, and storms: culinaria eugenius in yachats

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It’s raining again, and I feel like this banana slug, who like us escaped the forest to head out to the beach over Spring Break.  You know things are bad when even the slugs abandon ship.

Unfortunately, neither of us had the sense to go to a warm beach.  Oh well. Yachats was lovely in the storm.  We stayed right on the beach and watched the furious waves.  I tried to spot whales, reportedly on their spring migration all along the central Oregon coast, but it was a fruitless endeavor in sheets of rain and whitecaps as far as the eye could sea.

The seagulls and I shared meals of mollusks — they ate mussels, and I ate panfried razor clams at The Drift-Inn, a great little place in Yachats that’s been around for decades as a dive bar but has been gentrified, to the delight of a packed house.  They play live music every night (not updated on the website, unfortunately): jaunty old-timey fiddle and guitar duo that night.  Very pleasant.  I sang along.  And the menu is endless, featuring all the expected seafood specialties one might need and more.  We started with a slightly sweet hunk of house-smoked salmon, served with grapes, hardboiled egg, red onion, Ritz crackers, and a dried-parsley rolled cream cheese ball.  I don’t even know when last I saw dried parsley, much less a cream cheese ball rolled in it, but I kind of dug it in a retro way.

We (Retrogrouch, not the seagulls, and I) also shared a cup of the not-very-smoked salmon chowder and a much better special, a delicious hedgehog mushroom soup with caramelized onions, presumably with local hedgehog mushrooms.  Retrogrouch had the crab-breaded halibut. Service was a bit haphazard, given the huge crowd on a terribly rainy night that I’d imagine was a surprise.  I kind of wish we had sat at the bar, a lovely old wood wraparound number lit by dozens of colored glass lamps.  One of these days I’m going to chronicle these old Western bars.  Really one of our regional treasures.

And I heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

We also ate at a much newer local spot, the Luna Sea Fish House, owned by a fisherman, Robert Anthony, whose boat and recent crab catches are captured on video that plays on one wall.  Much better than a football game, if you ask me.  This tiny place features Chinook salmon, albacore, and crab he brings in himself, other local fish and shellfish in season from the Oregon coast, and standards from further afield.  There’s a small fish counter that had clams, crab, and a few varieties of fish whose origins were noted on a chalk board.

As difficult as it was to avoid the fish and chips almost everyone was eating on that stormy day, I opted for some mild but tasty marinated mixed-fish tacos made from trim, served with guacamole and a vinegar fresh vegetable slaw, colorful as the buoys we saw lining a fence nearby, and seasoned fries.  Add your own hot sauce, any of several on the table.  Retrogrouch had a salad of decent lettuces (it is winter, after all) topped with delicious  Chinook salmon at an outrageously low price for fish that had been pulled out of the sea by the restaurant owner.  The slumgullion, a clam bay shrimp chowder with melty strands of white cheeses that oozed off the spoon with each bite, looked pretty darn good, too.

On our way home, we chanced into sushi in Florence, a meal that ended up being my meal of the week last week on Food for Thought. Friendly, casual, promising Aloha Sushi operates out of the kitchen at Riley’s Steakhouse, right on 101 just north of the 126 junction, and serves up the wild and often sauce-drenched fusion sushi rolls I don’t like but they take them to the level of high kitsch (the surf and turf roll I spied at another table was a particularly egregious example).  Ignore these and instead focus on the subtle Hawaiian touches Chef Christian Jakobsen (a Hawaiian by birth and training) brings to very fresh fish in the standards.  He’s young and exuberant, which accounts for some of the wild fusion impulses, but it’s clear that he has been schooled well at his chef-father’s well-known restaurant.  The sushi menu is vast, with every possible combination one can think up (including guava jelly).  Again, don’t be scared away — easy to ignore if you’re not into fusion rolls, and if you are, heaven help you, you can enjoy some fascinating possibilities.

We had the best, silky salmon belly sashimi I’ve had in a long time, draped over seaweed salad, followed quickly by the mixed fish poke (above), a colorful melange of raw fish and cephalopods, onion, green onion, sesame, and garlicky soy vinegar dressing.

And the cucumber and cabbage sunomono salad, on the menu as pickled vegetables, made even less Japanese and more Hawaiian by the inclusion of furikake, a crunchy topping of nori and sesame spices, was quite nice too.  Retrogrouch had a huge bowl of miso soup with cabbage and tofu, and I enjoyed a surprising roll of mackerel with seaweed salad and grated ginger, a combination I had never seen before…but it really worked.

One thing to keep in mind about Aloha Sushi is that Urbanspoon is not updated with its new location.  It is now in Riley’s Steakhouse at 1161 Highway 101, roughly across the street from its previous host, a small seafood shack that is a former gas station.  And I see why. So once again, here’s a link to their website. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a link to their menu on the site and hope they fix that soon.  (And more unsolicited advice: hold the mayo and rice, please, on the more classical preparations like the sashimi and poke.  We’re in it for the extremely fresh fish!  And replace the green tea immediately.  It’s wretched.)

I managed to jump out of the car to snap a shot of a patch of pretty skunk cabbage blooms, and we made it back to Eugene just as the road crews were putting up high water signs on Highway 126.  More branches had fallen in our yard.  What a mess of a spring.  Hope you’re staying warm and dry.

western japan meets the west coast: my article on kamitori hits the stands!

My latest restaurant review in the Register-Guard has appeared today in the food section.  It’s a discussion of the excellent, Japanese-style sushi at Kamitori restaurant, and some of the Western Japan specialties made by Chef Masa Itai.  He’s pictured to the left, preparing kaisen-don or chirashi sushi, a bowl of seasoned rice with fish slices and various garnishes atop.  This lovely picture and others were taken by R-G photographer Paul Carter.

Chef Itai told me that he’s added a “Kamitori Assorted” selection for folks who’d like to try Osaka-style pressed sushi (oshi-sushi) in a sampler with other types of sushi.

Remember, go on Thursday for the best selection of fish, since that’s the day he gets it from abroad. Last week, we had a translucent sea bass sashimi (with a tiny delicacy — a tidbit of texturized, crunchy raw fin!), wild yellowtail (I think he called it hiramasa buri, if I recall correctly) and horse mackerel (aji) sushi, and a grilled black cod in miso.  You can’t get ANYTHING like this elsewhere in Eugene.

By the way, the print copy has a regrettable error in the caption to one photo that doesn’t appear in the online version.  I’ll be sure to ask to see captions before print in the future.  The pictured dish is actually the chirashi sushi you see being prepared by Chef Itai.  The “Osaka-style sushi” is in the background of that photo, and you can see just one piece, with eel, on the plate in the photo I’ve reposted here.

See other reviews of Kamitori at Urbanspoon.

Kamitori Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon

the secret of spicy tuna rolls

dscf6619.jpgI’ve been a big fan of spicy tuna rolls for many years. They drove me crazy until I figured out the secret ingredient: sriracha hot sauce, the Thai stuff you see on the tables at Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants. Some of the upscale sushi places use the traditional Japanese hot spice mix called togarashi (7-spice powder), but more often than not, the red stuff is sriracha, which is widely available at Asian markets and even some chain grocery stores.

For sushi in Eugene, you really can only profitably eat at Sushi Domo, a neighborhood Japanese restaurant in town that is rather out of the way, unpromisingly tucked into a strip mall between a Wal-Mart and a Goodwill. The sushi, surprisingly, is good, not great, a solid B+ performance. That’s not bad for sushi in Eugene, to say nothing of Eugene restaurants in general. And the menu features something delicious and unusual, what they call a crunchy spicy tuna roll. Usually, I hate the fancy rolls because they are a mishmash of flavors, are either brushed in teriyaki sauce or topped with Japanese mayonnaise, one of the foulest concoctions ever. And I’ve had crunchy rolls elsewhere that were not as good, or, egads, crunchy because they are rolled in batter and deep-fried. But this crunchy roll was delish. The little crunchy bits of tempura batter were integrated into the spicy tuna, tiny and subtle, just adding a bit of texture.

dscf6058.jpgThe crucial thing for home sushi is to get the freshest fish possible. It’s best to go to a fishmonger. Don’t assume that all fresh tuna is sushi-grade (or more technically correct, sashimi-grade, since “sushi” refers to the seasoned rice). Also, please don’t put mayonnaise on sushi; some restaurants now skip a step and just glop some srirachi-flavored mayo on top of a tekka-maki or tuna roll. I don’t even like it in the sauce for spicy tuna rolls.

If you need a recipe for sushi rice or how to roll sushi, google is your friend.

Spicy Tuna Rolls

Serves: 4 with other sushi or appetizers

1/2 lb. Sashimi-grade tuna, raw (ask if you’re not sure of the grade)
1 t. sriracha
1 t. sesame oil (you may also add some chili oil for extra spice)
1 t. soy sauce
4 green onions, white parts only, finely chopped
a few good shakes of white pepper
salt to taste
optional and delicious: 1 T. tobiko (flying fish roe, available fresh or frozen)

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Cut tuna into 2-inch cubes for food processor. Add to food processor and pulse until chopped roughly. (The mix in the photo was processed a bit too much so it was paste-like, and that really ruins the texture.) Place fish into bowl and mix with other ingredients. Taste for spiciness and salt. Serve in rolls with avocado and/or cucumber.  Another alternative is to serve without rice: use thinly sliced cucumber wrapped around a bit of spicy tuna mixture, secured by a toothpick.