SoHo’s Freshest, Tastiest Sushi?It’s a Long Wait, but Worth It

On a recent evening, I arranged to meet some friends for an early dinner before I’m Still Here … Damn It! , Sandra Bernhard’s one-woman show on West Bank Street. It had been a cloudless day, but Prince Street, which was floodlit, looked as though it had been hit by a major rainstorm. They were making a movie with Gwyneth Paltrow. (Whatever happened to Hollywood names for movie stars? It’s time to bring them back.) My friends were waiting outside in the street.

“Are you hoping to be discovered?” I asked. One of them was holding a ticket with a number. My heart sank. Blue Ribbon Sushi does not take reservations, but since it was only 7 o’clock, I thought we’d walk right in.

“Fifteen minutes,” said the maître d’.

Half an hour later, we set off down the block for a drink at the Blue Ribbon, the parent restaurant (which has a bar, unlike Blue Ribbon Sushi); we had arranged for the maître d’ to call when our table was ready. It was well after 8 P.M. by the time we were seated, in the front of the restaurant near the polished wooden sushi bar, behind which a trio of chefs was busily at work. The narrow dining room is softly lit and inviting, with a wooden floor and Japanese lanterns and booths. (There is another, smaller room in the back.)

“I hope we won’t be late for the show,” said my friend. “Bernhard is the sort of performer who yells abuse at you if you walk in in the middle.”

We decided on the “Blue Plate Special,” a sushi and sashimi platter made with the chef’s pick of the day. It cost $100, but for four people, we figured, it was not unreasonable. The waiter seemed unsure that it would be enough and suggested we share some first courses, too.

By 10 minutes to 9, apart from a small bowl of seaweed, none of the food had appeared. My friend had to write about the show, so he left without eating. Seeing him leave, the maître d’ became extremely apologetic and bought us a round of drinks.

Eventually a scallop shell appeared, stuffed with a delicious mixture of red smelt roe, minced mushrooms and scallops, along with a plate of fried squid and some fried tofu. (I had ordered the latter because I read somewhere that tofu is good for the memory.) These dishes were all very good, but time was passing. Then the Blue Plate Special arrived, and suddenly we felt as though it was an early Thanksgiving. A wooden platter big enough to hold a turkey, decorated with large wings, was laden with every conceivable kind of sushi and sashimi, from “dragon roll,” tuna wrapped in avocado sliced to look like a dragon’s scales, to crabmeat stuffed in salmon skin and miniature squid that looked as if it were made out of red lacquer. In addition to the usual yellowtail, bass and tuna, there was a generous pile of uni.

“This, I remember, is an acquired taste,” said one of my friends.

“Well, I acquired it long ago,” I replied, picking up a fat morsel with my chopsticks. Uni has the same effect on me as potato chips do on other people.

We talked about taking a doggie bag for our friend at the theater, but before we knew it, we had polished off the entire Blue Plate Special. We paid the bill, dashed into a cab that had a sinister growling noise coming from somewhere out of the back, and lurched over to the Westbeth Theater.

“Who’s on first?” I asked. “I don’t want to be the one who gets yelled at.”

The theater was packed, and Ms. Bernhard was standing in front of the microphone wearing what the French call artillerie de nuit , in this case a black see-through negligée, black lace underclothes and stiletto heels. We crept into our seats unnoticed.

My 9-year-old son loves Japanese food, so despite the prospect of another long wait, we went to Blue Ribbon Sushi on a Saturday night. Sensible people must stay home on this night, so we walked right in.

“What is ‘mongo’?” asked Alexander, as he looked over the menu.

“Giant squid,” replied the waiter.

“Let’s try it!” said my husband.

“I usually don’t like that sort of thing,” said Alexander, “but O.K. What I really want is California roll. How many come in a pack?”

The squid arrived first, cut in opaque slices that glistened like shards of white porcelain. He looked at it. “I’m having a sort of scary feeling …” Nevertheless, he picked up his chopsticks and took a bite. “Rubber!”

“Raw squid always tastes a bit like rubber, but it’s nice,” said my husband.

“Does rubber cost less than octopus? That little piece cost less than rubber! For $9.95 a pound, octopus rubber bands!”

Instead of going for the conventional sushi, we ordered some of the more unusual items on the menu, such as kohada, spotted sardine and fried oysters, chopped and wrapped in a long sushi roll with rice on the outside, a seductive combination of soft and crunchy textures. Shiitake mushroom caps stuffed with moist flakes of crab arrived hot and sizzling, as did the broiled eel under a delicate soy glaze. A special of the day consisted of a mound of sea urchin roe piled into a prickly shell not its own, and I could not stop eating it. Everything was pristine, fresh and delicious.

“Maybe we’ll just have one more thing,” mused my husband as he consulted the menu again.

“It doesn’t say what ‘kanpachi’ is,” said Alexander. “Let’s just order it and then find out.”

Ordering like that can get you into trouble, as some friends of mine from Chile can testify. They stopped for lunch one day in some remote village in Bavaria at a small restaurant attached to a bakery. They didn’t speak a word of German so they recklessly pointed at the most expensive item on the menu. The waiter shook his head ” Nein! Nein !” When they insisted, he disappeared into the kitchen and returned with the owner, who also shook his head. By this time, their curiosity was thoroughly aroused, and they stood firm. After they had waited for nearly an hour, the doors of the kitchen opened and the waiter emerged. He was carrying a wedding cake. As it turned out, kanpachi was a perfectly nice Japanese fish that tasted like yellowtail.

BLUE RIBBON SUSHI **

119 Sullivan Street 343-0404

Dress: Casual

Noise Level: Fine

Wine List: Good sakes

Credit Cards: Visa, American Express

Price Range: Dinner main courses $13 to $19.50

Dinner: Tuesday to Sunday 4 P.M. to 2 A.M.

* Good

** Very Good

*** Excellent

**** Outstanding

No Star Poor

Comments

  1. Kena Benkert says:

    Great blog! Sorry to get off subject, but since Nashville is getting a lot of press lately, I’m looking for a great Nashville sushi restaurant or Japanese restaurant. Have you heard of any good ones? There’s a new one called Nomzilla Sushi Et Cetera, but I’ve only seen a few reviews. Here’s the address of this new Nashville Sushi Restaurant , 1201 Villa Place, Suite 101 Nashville, TN 37212 – (615) 268-1424. Thoughts? Thanks!