Toshio Oguma brought out a container filled with sheets of kombu seaweed, lifted up a leaf, and pulled two translucent slices of fish out to place on nigiri. I knew the sushi chef and I had made contact.
"It's fluke," he said. "I have been marinating it in kombuall day."
Nigiri with kombu-marinated fluke? Never seen that before. We'd been doing a courtship dance, Oguma and I, since I had arrived at 2G Japanese Brasserie to sit at his sushi bar.
Now, Oguma didn't know that I'd been waiting for weeks to come see him, since reading that the Tokyo-trained chef had just joined the 7-month-old restaurant after helping open Morimoto Napa and a long residence at Sushi Sumile in New York. And I didn't know how to convince him that I wanted to see what else he had at the bar besides the easy-eating triumvirate of tuna, eel, and shrimp.
It was only 7:30 when I sat down, but the pre-opera crowd had just departed, leaving only one table in the ballroom-sized restaurant and one fellow diner at the 20-seat sushi bar at the back. She was methodically working her way through the $24 omakase platter listed on the menu.
His opening salvo: "Are you in a hurry?" Easily parried.
"Can I just order nigiri as we go?" I asked. "I love octopus, as well as saba (mackerel) and aji (Spanish mackerel) — you have any of those?"
He nodded, round-faced and serious, then gave a hollow clap and scooped up a handful of rice.
The meal opened with octopus, thickly sliced and rimmed with the purple half-moons of suckers. Oguma had scored the center of the flesh before laying it across an oval of rice, and painted on a pale brown varnish of soy sauce sweetened with mirin. It was a little chewy, but I nodded enthusiastically. And then the best sushi meal I've eaten all year commenced.
First, he handed me the most succulent saba nigiri I've ever eaten. "This comes from Kyushu," he said. "It's not like local saba, which is very fishy." The silver-skinned fish seemed to melt into the rice, as if it were a pat of warm butter, with a whiff of sea-foam to remind me it was fish and not fat.
Then came the fluke nigiri. The fluke was only slightly marinated, just enough to pick up the grassy, umami-dense notes of seaweed, and topped with a translucent sliver of yuzu rind — a flash of sweet citrus. After that, he reached over the bar to give me nigiri topped with precise rectangles of tuna that he had plunged for a few minutes in a deep soy marinade to give the meat some real character, followed by a fat, 8-shaped butterflied scallop brushed with a thick, sweet sauce. Everything was seasoned so beautifully that the thought of pouring a dish of soy sauce or touching the lump of wasabi never occurred. I popped each piece into my mouth with my fingers, savoring the way the grains of rice in the nigiri separated and tumbled around my tongue as the fish dissolved.
A week after my sushi meal at 2G, I returned with friends to check out the work of the other chef 2G had just hired: Yasuhiro Ueno, a veteran of Foreign Cinema and Chaya. Most of his cooked food was basic Japanese-American restaurant fare, carefully plated but dull: agedashi tofu ($6) with a gummy coating, tasting of old fryer oil. Three squares of kakuni pork belly ($7), braised in a sweet, anise-tinged soy and rice wine broth until the fat softened but the lean portion grew dry and fibrous. Overcooked, underseasoned hamachi collar ($16). A mizuna salad ($10) with an interesting pairing of artichokes and seaweed, and a few too many additional ingredients, including feta and cherry tomatoes.
The mediocre meal was bracketed by two highlights: The first was Oguma's sashimi of sanma (pike), a slim, rich fish garnished with feathery panes of its deep-fried skin. And dinner ended with one of Ueno's entrees, which showed the cook had some serious French-California training. He'd fanned slices of perfectly cooked duck breast ($25) — glazed skin, pink meat — across plush roasted eggplant, spooning a honey-miso reduction sauce around the meat.
But those highlights seem anticlimactic after my night at the sushi bar, where the scallop had segued into a single nigiri of roasted eggplant covered in pink, smoky flakes of katsuoboshi, or dried bonito. Oguma moved with the twitchy, almost obsessive gestures of a cook who has too little to do, and before I finished the eggplant he spooned salmon roe marinated in soy, dashi, and rice wine onto another oval of rice for me. "Everything I marinate," he explained. "Sushi chefs these days think it's all about slicing off fish and putting it on rice. It's lazy. I like the old style."
After the salmon roe, I had to tell the chef there was only belly space for one last piece. I said I hoped it would be uni — that mineral-tinged gush of cold, sweet urchin roe is my favorite dessert after a $60 sushi meal.
"Here," Oguma said, handing me one last, meticulously composed nigiri covered in coral-colored clouds of urchin. "I'm giving you only the male uni," he said. "It's sweeterthan the female."
Clearly, we had come to an understanding.