Dining With Moira Hodgson

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Is Teeming With Life

“Live fish,” anyone? It’s on the menu at Sui, a new Japanese-American restaurant on the eastern fringe of Soho, along with “live lobster” and “live uni.”

Co-owner and chef Adam Roth describes the food as New Japanese American, which means, in addition to exotic sushi and sashimi, there are dishes like monkfish liver paté, abalone steamed in sake and grilled ostrich. A delicious “spider” roll is made with soft-shell crab and avocado, and yellowtail sashimi comes with a pomegranate dressing.

Eating here, as I watched shoals of colorful tropical fish swimming around in aquariums, I felt as though I were in some surreal restaurant that had been built on the ocean floor. The dining room is painted blue and has an undulating ceiling, wall sconces shaped like waves and three waterfalls behind the sushi bar. Even the bar at the entrance, which faces a shimmering, wavy glass wall panel, has a fish motif.

One of the fish tanks was dominated by a fat gray fish 20 times as big as the others. It had round black eyes and a tiny pursed mouth, like a character in Japanese anime. I could have watched it all night. But instead, we were seated in front of an aquarium that was empty but for a small lone goldfish swimming around all by itself.

“Something went wrong with the cleaner thing and all the others died,” explained our waiter cheerfully. “There’s another fish in there, but they don’t like each other. So it’s hiding.”

Or maybe it was afraid of ending up on a customer’s plate.

For “fresh and live” is the maxim at Sui (the name is derived from the Japanese for “water“), and there are tanks here-under the sushi bar-whose occupants are destined solely for the dinner plate.

“Our special tonight is live uni,” our waiter said. “It’s very fresh. Just in from Japan this morning.”

I suppose if he’d said “live” oyster, it would have the same slightly discomfiting effect. I am no stranger to live sea urchins, spooned straight from their spiky shells. But I don’t think about them being live, any more than I worry about the state of the oyster (of whom Alexandre Dumas once commented, “Its only exercise is sleep; its only pleasure, eating”).

So I ordered the “live” uni. A black platter arrived at the table with three shells heaped generously with plump sea urchins topped with caviar. They came with a subtle orange vinaigrette that brought out their delicate flavor, along with a little wooden paddle that had Japanese writing on the handle (what on earth did it say?) and contained a scoop of wasabi. The uni were so good I could have eaten another round.

Sui has great ambitions, and many of the dishes the kitchen turns out are wonderful, especially the sushi and sashimi. A good deal of thought has gone into the look of the food, too. Three kinds of ceviche arrived on a giant black plate that was almost the size of our table. It was decorated with a bamboo leaf and a red lobster shell and set with three kinds of glasses: a beaker, a martini glass and a wine glass. We took off the glasses and sent away the plate because it didn’t fit on the table with the other dish we’d ordered, which was about the same size. The ceviches-lobster, fluke and scallops-were strange. Fluke with bean sprouts and grapefruit is an odd combination, and the discovery of cocktail onions at the bottom of one glass was not a pleasant surprise.

The other platter consisted of three carved-out zucchini standing up on their ends, acting as receptacles for three kinds of sashimi-spicy tuna, toro with truffle oil and jalapeno, and yellow tail-which were all topped with red and black caviars. These were very good. A “Napoleon” made with minced toro tartare layered between parchment-like crab crisps was also first-rate, and was given a Latin accent with an avocado salsa and grape tomatoes.

Many of the Asian dishes get an American touch, too-yellowtail sashimi came with a salad, a forest of vegetables (radish, tomato and micro greens) that made it enough for a main course. The soft-shell crab “spider” roll was served with lettuce and avocado in a dressing very similar to the one you get on Cobb salad, only spicier.

But there’s an uneven quality to the food at Sui. Peeky-toe crab pot stickers were chewy and tasteless; even the orange chili plum sauce they were served with failed to perk them up. On the other hand, the pan-seared diver scallops were nicely glazed and juicy, and went beautifully with the ruby grapefruit and soy-flavored mustard. Crunchy tiger shrimp were also good, rolled in crushed peanuts and served on skewers with a fresh mango salsa.

So it was surprising to find that duck “cooked two ways” meant one way badly and the other just fine. While the breast had been grilled to the consistency of an old boot, the confit leg was perfectly prepared. The red bean rice which came on the side was so good I would buy a barrel of it to take home, if I could. The rice is also served with the lemongrass-marinated lamb, which was an unmitigated success: Charred and juicy, it comes with sautéed mizuna and walnuts.

Desserts are also up and down. Skip the greasy apple spring rolls (served with ice cream) and try the spiced kabocha cake made with Japanese pumpkin and accompanied by an unctuous red bean ice cream. Japanese bean pancakes were a little heavy, but pleasant. “Lava” cheesecake, cut in chunks and deep-fried, was wonderfully original, with the cheese melting inside a crispy exterior.

The kitchen at Sui is still settling down and working out the kinks. But eating here is a great deal of fun. Next time I come, I hope the goldfish has some new friends.

Dining With Moira Hodgson