My epic love affair with the ancient art of sushi began in the womb, as sashimi was one of the few things my mother could stomach when she was pregnant with me. Japanese people would stare at her in Japantown in San Francisco as she wolfed down plates of raw tuna. I’ve matured into a pompous sushi-snob who terrorizes misinformed waitresses on their usage of Japanese terms: knowledge of the difference between “nigiri” (sliced fish over a rectangle of rice) and “maki” (the term for any typical sushi roll) ought to be a pre-requisite for employment.
So it’s with full authority that I recommend one of the latest additions to the neighborhood, Tamaya on Broadway near W. 168th Street. It’s quickly becoming a personal favorite. The rolls are quality and similarly priced to the great Sushi Yu II on W. 181st Street near Pinehurst Avenue, and more economical than Empire Szechuan Noodle House, a block north, which advertises half-off prices that are double what most restaurants charge.
Northern Manhattan has seen a bite-sized burst of sushi restaurants in the last year. Tamaya opened in June and in December MamaSushi opened in Inwood. The tiny, chic location on Dyckman Street, which aims for a Dominican take on sushi, is located just down the street from its hermano, Mamajuana Café.
From the moment you walk through the doors, Tamaya takes over your senses. Subtle hints of seaweed hang in the air and attentive waitresses wearing silky mock kimono uniforms are very attentive. A sparse room filled with square dark wooden tables and matching chairs, offers a simple, uncluttered dining experience. Above, crosshatched dark wooden beams are reminiscent of Japanese screens. Speaking to the head chef, Taila Chan, through an interpreter about the ingredients of my meal and hearing his answers in Japanese only further transports me across the Pacific Ocean.
My favorite thing about Tamaya is the spicy tuna hand-roll. A cone-shaped roll of raw tuna tossed in a spicy mayonnaise sauce, I never thought it possible to improve on such a tasty combination. But Tamaya adds a brilliant twist – crunch – something I’ve never seen anywhere else. Cleverly distributed within the rice and fish are crunchy crumbs of tempura batter. Against the soft tuna, it is magic in your mouth. I ordered two just to ensure a quality description.
For the main course I went for the unagi don, barbecued eel over a bed of sushi rice served with the addictive unagi sauce, part soy sauce and part sugar reduced to syrup.
Most exciting are the little flourishes and extra touches that the chefs add to their art. This time my unagi was garnished with bright green and purple Japanese pickles. According to Chan, the strong colors are achieved with special vinegars used to make the pickles. They made a mouth watering visual against the brown slices of eel in a star pattern over a dome of rice. Japanese normally eat this in the hot summer months believing that the dish promotes strength and stamina in the body.
My date ordered the Dinner Bento, a sampler option for $14.95, which includes a miso soup, salad, shumai (steamed dumplings) one sushi roll and a choice of entrees ranging from teriyakis and curries to sashimi. Everything is served in a box-shaped plate divided into compartments for each item – like an elegant Japanese T.V. dinner. But my favorite part of her meal wasn’t the teriyaki shrimp but the seaweed salad on the side. The seaweed isn’t dried but fresh and of a type that almost looks like noodles. Its texture is firm (al dente) and it is tossed in a light sweet sauce.
For dessert our red bean mochi, balls of red bean ice cream encased in a rice skin, was garnished with whipped cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce.
If your post holiday wallet can manage, and your post holiday stomach needs a break, sushi is a great way to trick yourself into having a light meal. And if your cleansing cuisine needs a little extra cheer, Tamaya offers a solid selection of wine, Japanese beers, and sake (rice wine), served both hot and cold.