A Tale of Two Su-sees

11 Feb

Several years ago I went through a Japanese “phase”. From art to literature, food to costume, gardens to architecture, I dove into learning as much as I could. Back then, the concrete courtyard of my tiny carriage house in downtown was a tribute to Japanese style with Zen gardens, a bath house, and whiskey barrel pond with fish and fountain. Summer was spent with my own version of a far Eastern paradise right outside the door. I learned to make sushi and probably elevated my mercury levels way beyond proportion in the process, but I fell in love with Japanese culture and food.

When Ten announced that it would participate in Charlottesville’s restaurant week, my sushi excitement level rolled up a notch. Even though last Saturday was bitterly cold and snow showers set in as Clarence and I zoomed up the road, I began to anticipate not only sampling authentic sushi, but trying sake again. It seemed a milder form of rubbing alcohol in my first experience of it and recently the only sushi I had been diving into was the Kroger variety spicy tuna roll; any port in a Pacific storm, I suppose. So I was eager to experience a “real” Japanese restaurant.

Briskly clicking down the bricks of Charlottesville’s downtown mall, I found the door to Ten and climbed the stairs, grateful for the warm ambiance that greeted me. The peaceful spa-like atmosphere comes mainly from lighting, glass globes like tiny bubbles floating upward to the water’s surface, hung from the mirrored ceiling. Marbled candlelight glows about the room; clear glass sculptures echo the light in celadon green and dark brown. The narrow length of the restaurant and its up-the-stairs location create a sense of a diminutive isolated inlet. Perched on my bar stool with low back and comfortable cushion, I gazed at the strip of sunset style lighting behind the bottles on the bar. The entire experience at Ten spoke of precision and reflection, reminding me of the traditional tea ceremony I attended during my Japanese summer. My place at the bar was set with all the necessary accouterments of Japanese eating, little plates, hashi, and tiny vessel of tamari placed in precise order. Efficient but professionally warm, described my bartender as he suggested I try a flight of sake to match my selections from the prix fixe menu. And so a feast of tiny ocean tidbits rolled out by an electric sunset. The first course of seared hamachi adorned by tiny micro greens was paired with a dry sake, Tamari Hikari “Brilliant Jade”. Slightly jasmine scented, the sake changed in interaction with the food, the slightly salty smoky grilled tuna turning the sake sweet. I lingered over the first course, for it was so tiny that in American style, it could be consumed in less than a minute. But I thought about the tea ceremony, and the invitation to reflect while in practice, tasting fully each bite and putting the hashi down, each time.

A second course followed, a spicy tuna maki (maguro, avocado, kyri, and togarashi). The sauce was tomato based and with a dark rich spicy sweet cayenne burst that paired well with the next sake, Kabota Senju “A Thousand Dreams” . This sake had a mellowed, more round edge to it that balanced the spicy richness of the maki. During my second course, I noticed one of the waiters had come around to the back of the bar, and was focused on crafting a sunset style drink. Another waitress teased him slightly, “You’re like a scientist!” He chuckled, “I just want to make it right”. And he did take a full two minutes to get the grenadine to set exactly. That attentiveness to detail and to method permeated Ten. From first to last course, the perfection and structure of the food and dining room walked a very thin line between elegance and pretension. In my mind, that’s what happens when the fear of being “only” just as good as everyone else comes to the point of “overdoing”…..i.e. perfectionism. Even though my final course, a chef’s choice of temari sushi topped with varying fish roe and served with semi dry Dasai 50 “Otter’s Fest” was delicious and delicate, a slight nagging vacuity never left my mind.

This past Friday upon visiting a second Japanese cafe close to my home, Suzaku, I figured out my feelings. I drive by the place all the time and really never gave it much credit. Another Americanized Asian greasy spoon was what I had assumed. They serve sushi, and sushi crepes.

Yes, sushi crepes. That’s like bbq chicken pasta in my book.

I can be pretentious myself about food, however, so I decided in light of my Ten experience to pick up some sushi take-out. How do I describe the ambiance of Suzaku? Chinese food take-out meets Japanese Disneyland, with a huge dose of American standard strip mall. But it’s extremely clean, it’s warm, and it’s real. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles played on the flat screen TV, amid candy colored painted furniture and brightly colored Asian themed decorative items, jade frog included. The clerk who greeted me was so friendly and sweet when I asked her about ordering to go. She explained the menu to me, struggling through her heavy accent. As she went back to making crepes in the open kitchen (for me, a sign of excellence in food) I perused the menu. Nearly everything I had ordered at Ten was listed, perhaps named differently, but still the same sushi (or su-see) as she pronounced it, nonetheless. Su-see is su-see no matter where, as long as its made properly. I tried the Green Bay crepe, filled with seaweed salad, shrimp tempura, avocado, cucumber and fish roe with a side order of Maguro Nigiri. Even though I took the food home and didn’t have the perfectly paired sake, it was just as good, maybe even better. I watched the chef at Suzaku prepare my nigiri, rice fresh from the cooker, fresh fish sliced thin and fine. The clerk made my crepe, which surprisingly, was pretty awesome and I discovered something about myself. While I revel in fine food and spirits, I’ve been mesmerized by slight affectation in venue. My bill at Ten was a cool $80, just for me. At Suzaku? Eleven bucks.

Maybe this attentiveness to perfection includes me, too. I’ve stressed about my writing and I should just let go sometimes. Perhaps Disneyland and su-see are what I need to lighten me. It seems the only time I’m able to write about something funny is when the plan goes horribly awry. Seeing the lighter side just might give me a different way of looking at traveling this road. Light, unassuming, and simple, sometimes the best places and people don’t take themselves so seriously.

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