A Matter of Taste: Raw Perfection in the East Village

On the day of the World Trade Center attack, I waited for nearly two hours in a line at Greenwich Village supermarket, one of the few stores still open. A woman elbowed her way past me to the shelves and picked up a small can of tomatoes.

“These are diced,” she said loudly to no one in particular. “I want sliced ones.”

A man reached up and handed her another can. She waved it away.

“Those’ve got chilies.”

I pointed her toward another brand. She shook her head. “Diced!”

“When you chew the tomatoes, they’ll be diced anyway, so what’s the difference?” the man exclaimed .

“I need sliced tomatoes.”

“I don’t believe this!” He threw up his hands. “They’re blowing up the city and she wants sliced tomatoes!”

It was a brief moment of comic relief on that awful day.

It feels strange to be writing a restaurant review at this time, but as Mayor Giuliani said, we need to behave as normally as possible, to go to restaurants and go shopping. On Monday night, I had dined at Jewel Bako in the East Village. Listening to this woman, I realized that if anyone could have sympathized with her insistence on the right tomatoes, it would have been the owners of this tiny sushi place, tucked behind a gray stucco wall. The name means “jewel box” in Japanese, and here every detail aims for perfection, from the pale gray stones in the glassed-in rock garden at the door to the handblown glasses carefully chosen for each sake, to the high polish on the copper water jugs and the placement of the shadows cast by the spotlit flowers in the bathroom. So it’s hardly surprising that when it comes to sushi, Jewel Bako caters to connoisseurs ready to shell out $12 for just one piece of their highly prized tuna-belly roll.

The owners, Jack and Grace Lamb, are a husband-and-wife team; he was formerly a maître d’ at Bouley Bakery and is now an attorney for Mayor Giuliani’s office by day; she used to work at Tiffany. They have transformed a former video store into an intimate dining room that seats only 24, with a white bamboo sushi bar in the back that holds six, manned by chef Tatsuya Nagata. Sitting under a curved ceiling lined with bamboo arches in the narrow front room, you feel you are in the dining car of some fanciful railway carriage. Two half-moon mirrors are cleverly placed at one end to make the place seem bigger, and lacquered bamboo tables with green velvet banquettes are lined up on either side.

Ms. Lamb, a strikingly pretty Korean-American woman with a mane of long black hair, acts as hostess. Mr. Lamb, who bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Aldous Huxley with his thick spectacles and dark suit, swirls and sniffs the wine he pours into large, thin glasses and recommends an aperitif from one of the “artisan” sakes with names like Devil’s Quivering Tongue and Eight Cranes. The food is an aesthetic experience, served on an array of beautiful Japanese pottery–large square plates with curved edges and deep ceramic bowls that must be a dishwasher’s nightmare.

After just two visits, you feel you know the staff–hardly a feat, since there are only two people waiting tables, an engaging woman with a Medusa-like swarm of hair the color of bleached seaweed and an equally charming Japanese man. I was so mesmerized by his description of the day’s specials (among them baby octopus–”You should see it, it’s so cute!”) that I failed to notice I was holding my menu over the candle and it was now on fire. It was like a gag from a Chaplin movie, and the waiter “corpsed” like an actor onstage in the middle of his lines, sending us all into fits of giggles.

We regained our composure with the arrival of a “gift” from the chef, a tea bowl of juicy surf clams tossed with smoky shimeji mushrooms. Another night we were served baby scallops mixed with asparagus in a sesame mayonnaise.

If you’re up for a splurge, the chef’s omakase–a tasting menu he puts together from the best produce of the day–is well worth it. The octopus, the size of a baby’s fist, was indeed the cutest I’d ever seen, with a sweet, clean taste. Four kinds of yellowtail followed, with names like Striped Golden Amberjack, then a quivering little turnip mousse on a shiso leaf alongside a Japanese snail on a wedge of tofu. Chilled briny kumamoto oysters were topped with tosazu vinegar jelly and wild chervil; slices of seared tuna arrived on a layer of crunchy baby radishes. Toro tartare–creamy tuna belly that we ate with a spoon–was served on an avocado base with a little kick of mustard and red roe, plus young ginger, capers and chives. “No soy,” said our waiter firmly when he put it down.

Platters of sushi or sashimi, served with miso soup, cost between $22 and $29. The sushi is smaller, not like the large pieces you get elsewhere, and accompanied by a heap of shaved young ginger (fresh wasabi is available some nights at an additional charge). Soy sauce comes on the side, but you are encouraged to use it sparingly, so subtle and fresh is the fish. The chef’s omakase includes a platter of sushi. Among the selection the night of our visit were needlefish (a kind of mackerel), raw shrimp, fluke and salmon. When we’d finished, Mr. Lamb approached our table. “The chef wants to know if anyone’s still hungry.” We weren’t really, but we wanted to try more things, so the chef sent out a platter of small rolls filled with uni, tuna, and eel and avocado. I told Mr. Lamb it was the best sushi I’d had.

Even the desserts at Jewel Bako are extraordinary. They include a scoop of intense green-apple sorbet (“Made from one whole green apple,” said the waiter) and, another night, mango. A compote of mission figs is topped with shiso cream; a dark, rich square of red-bean chocolate mousse decorated with flecks of gold leaf.

When we left that Monday night, one of my friends pointed out banks of Queen Anne’s lace growing in the middle of Houston Street, something I’d never noticed. Three days went by before I returned to Jewel Bako, during which the city had been changed forever. After dinner we walked back down to Soho, where I live. An acrid smell filled the air, and I didn’t even notice the flowers. But for two hours, at least, I had managed to assuage some of the horror of the past three days with the terrific food at that tiny storefront. Everybody will remember where they were that fatal Tuesday. Mr. Lamb, the owner of Jewel Bako, was late for his morning meeting. It was near the World Trade Center.

JEWEL BAKO

* * *

239 East Fifth Street

979-1012

Dress: Casual but hip

Noise level: Low

Wine list: Half a dozen well-chosen wines; interesting “artisan” sakes

Credit cards: All major

Price range: Main courses $12 to $29; chef’s tasting menu from $50

Dinner: Monday to Saturday, 6:30 to 10:30 p.m.

*Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor