November 17, 1980 | Vintage Insatiable
The Seaweed Factor
A passion for the tastes of Japan can lead culinary explorers to astonishing adventure. Not a minute too soon, Japanese kosher is seeded in SoHo. And there is sublime tuna belly one flight up, midtown—if you crack the code and rout the snubbery.
Kurumazushi is inscrutable by design... a riddle and a mystery, the better to discourage the mindless lunchtime drift, the fickle gastronomic dabblers. Kurumazushi is listed enigmatically in the phone book at 423 Madison, but the climb at 423 takes you nowhere. There is no sign, no arrow, no clue that if you walk into the adjacent Dosanko noodle shop, frantic at noon, deserted by nine... you may or may not stumble on the stairway to the elusive Kurumazushi, unadvertised, nearly unsung, designed to indulge the sushi appetites of Japanese businessmen.
No, it’s not that big room on the right that looks like the employees’ cafeteria of a Sony factory by day, at night a magnet for gentlemen at Mah-Jongg. Swivel left. Walk beneath the banner leveled to make most Caucasians duck. Behind the wood-and-glass slatted door, Tony Saegusa, the intimidating sentinel at the bar, may be discouraging. “No reservation? Sorry. The empty table? It is taken.” Never mind that we are meeting friends for dinner...even now en route. Never mind that our friend is a familiar here. The sentinel is unmoved. “How we were longing for uni,” I try. “And to taste the chef’s futomaki. For mirugai and engewa,” I babble, throwing out every sushi word I can remember. The sentinel studies us again. Perhaps we are not as flighty as we seem. And, melting at last, he decrees, “In half and hour there will be a table.” Feeling like a CPA from Queens being given Woody Allen’s corner at Elaine’s, who are we to complain it’s the same empty table we begged for on arrival?
Abandoning an assortment of footwear, our quartet folds legs into the obligatory submission on tatami, leaning against pillowed wooden backrests to consume $150 worth of jewel-like morsels of raw fish, either solo or nuzzling ovals of vinegared rice minced with crunchy vegetation inside dried-seaweed finger rolls...drinking a river of tea and hot sake. Appearing to accept our bravos—“Oishii, oishii!” –Tony Saegusa concedes that Kurumazushi does nothing to encourage the casual sushi hound. Except for a few specific requests, we are dining at the chef’s whim, frustrated by our communication difficulty. Yet trays arrive, and the food is wonderful. There is a minimum at dinner of $25 per person just for food.
“When we open, our only advertising was letters to Japanese companies,” Saegusa observes.
“And what made you decide to give us a table?” I ask.
“I got a hunch about you,” he says.
Sashimi and sushi do not necessarily require advanced lessons in Japanese. You can order Kurumazushi’s standard sampler (from $6 up, including soup and green tea) or chirashi—slivers of raw fish, pickles, cold omelet, and salmon roe on rice strewn with pickle and shredded seaweed in a lacquer box. But to scale the sushi heights—to taste the mysteriosa, seasonal tidbits and obscure delicacies – you must order okonomu, á la carte, at the counter. With little or no Japanese, you wing it—or hope for a bilingual assist from the Japanese who surround you.
To claim lunch space at the twelve-stool counter (there are also four tables), we reserve at noon. Our counter mates stare at us as if we were Martians. We begin with shashimi, just two small pieces each—meltingly delicate tuna belly, velvety abalone (with one tough edge that should have been cut off), tough octopus, two kinds of clams. Then my favorite—funky sea urchin in rice wrapped in seaweed –uni temaki, Raw shrimp and the fin of a fluke are not in season.
“Does anyone know the word for yam?” I am struggling. “Pickled plum?” The chef smiles in delighted comprehension.
“Umemaki,” he says, handing us tart plum in vinegared rice with something grassy and green (shiso, an aromatic leaf) inside a crisp seaweed roll.
“That good for your health,” our interpreter observes.
Now we are reduced to pointing and cribbing from our neighbors—“What does he have?” Bonito. “Give us that.” The bonito is fragile, almost sweet, a perfect foil for minced scallion and a bit of soy. There are two or three fish no one can identify. And then the sublime finale. Let us go home with the sea perfume of uni in our mouths. We have clearly eaten twice as much as our neighbors. The bill is $37.80. And I notice that the Japanese businessmen, who have long conversations between fish, seem immune to the crunch of their seaweed and pickled-ginger garnish—ours quickly disappears. Perhaps seaweed is the iceberg lettuce of Japan.
423 Madison Avenue, near 48th Street
Shalom Japan. Well, why not? Why should anyone be deprived of sushi transcendence or the joys of tempura by the conflicts of spiritual vow? That’s exactly what Miriam Mizakura reasoned. Miriam is Japanese and Miriam is Jewish. She also sings, dances, does impressions and Yiddish jokes with a Japanese flavor. “My cousin was the only boy in Japan to get a transistor radio from Brooklyn for his bar mitzvah.” Pause. “Not funny? So sorry.” Giggle.
Dinner at 8:30. The floor show has begun. Shalom Japan, the vanity nightclub. Miriam is a bundle of Debbie Reynolds, stripping from kimono to miniskirt, doing Zero Mostel in Yiddish and Japanese, coaxing a surprisingly game diner from his table to join her onstage...trilling her heart out to a sparsely settled room.
“The Japanese, you know, is the Chinese Litvak,” Miriam confides with the spice of self-mockery that goes with her adopted territory. “Not funny? So sorry.” Giggle.
The waiters in kimono cutoffs do a bunny dip to avoid crossing the spotlight as they deliver drinks and “karate choppe”—that’s chopped liver Japanese-style, a bit frugal on the chicken fat—and the Tokyo smorgasbord, “A bissel this and a bissel that” ($3.75 per person, for a minimum of two). Delicious Japanese egg roll, fried wonton, juicy chicken teriyaki cut to resemble spareribs, and soggy tempura vegetable to crisp over the bibachi flame only if you love the taste of fuel.
“I enjoy being a girl,” cries Miriam.
“I think this is the kind of music you can talk over if you like,” one of my companions suggests.
“I think you have no choice,” a second agrees.
Miriam introduces the house rabbi and his son. The rabbi sings. The son sings. The kid is a belter...very cute. The chef is introduced. He sings. The waiter sings. The piano player sings. Alas, the kitchen is out of kamikaze gefilte fish and eagle fliegels—chicken wings in ginger sauce. Sashimi (“Oy gevalt—try it you’ll like it,” the menu advises) are three tiny triangles of tuna and three of bass, rather stingy for $3.
The chef’s matzo balls are ethereal, and his kreplach are zesty with ginger, but his bean-paste soup is pale and bland brew. Teriyaki steak is tough and rare ($12), the cold sweet-and-sour salmon a bit dry ($11). Sukiyaki is a humble stew of beef cut thin as flower petals ($12), and the tempura is not celestial. The wine comes in varying degrees of sweetness, mostly sweeter. Kosher pastry means dairyless custard under fruit. The Oriental teas have not arrived.
On nights the rabbi’s family isn’t there, the floor show is briefer. When business picks up, Miriam Mizakura plans to hire acts. Monday will be showcase night. The kitchen is blessed if not brilliant and...shalom...this is New York. There must be an audience for just this blend of kosher and innocent kitsch.