I don't often resort to ALL CAPS, but this was one of my best dining experiences in memory. The evening unfolded thusly...
Actually, it had a less-than-sterling beginning. My girlfriend and I had a sushi bar reservation at 8:30, and we miraculously got to 181 w 4th street, right west of 6th ave where 4th street starts to go crooked, right on time [OK, my girlfriend tells me we got there at 8:32, but close enough]. The place is really cute and really really small (4 tables and 6 sushi bar spots), probably a converted first floor unit of an apartment building. When we got there, the hostess asked us if we could wait, as the sushi bar was all full; it looked to me like all six patrons were just getting warmed up, but the hostess said we'd have to wait for only a few minutes...
Almost half an hour later, we still had to wait "only a few more minutes," and at this point, we were hungry, cranky, and pretty much ready to try our fortunes somewhere else, not annoyed as much by the wait as the feeling that we were being strung along. I mean, seriously, I'd have thought that a place that has such a small capacity would be able to keep better track of its limited number of seats. I'm going through all this b/c I don't know if Aki suffers through these shenanigans regularly, but if they do on your visit, you may well be tempted to walk out, as we were. Don't do it. For some reason, we decided to stick it out; it was [cue dramatic music] a fateful decision with profound gastronomic implications.
After we finally sat, the chipper hostess brought us some edamame and apologized for our long wait. I thought that the edamame was given to us precisely for our wait, and so I was placated somewhat, especially since they were pretty darn good. I'm actually pretty sure now that the edamame were a standard complimentary appetizer as I later noted other newly seated tables getting it, but as you'll read below, by then I was too happy to care.
We ordered the chef's tasting menu, which we had heard so much about. Basically, it's $35/45/55 for two/three/four appetizers, sushi entree and dessert. We took the mid-sized route, opting for three appetizers apiece. One nice option they gave us was letting us share all six appetizers, bringing them out one-by-one rather than two-by-two. I'd highly recommend this: not only does it make your meal feel like a never-ending parade of goodness (Eight total courses!), it's much more intimate than simply passing your plates back and forth.
As other posts on aki have noted, the chef used to be the personal chef for the Japanese Ambassador to Jamaica, and it shows: the menu has Carribean fingerprints all over it, with lots of mango, coconut and other tropical flavors enhancing the Japanese dishes. If you want to check out a sample menu, it's on www.menupages.com.
Appetizer One was Montauk Salad, an array of sliced sashimi (ebi, maguro, some whitefish, red clam and scallops) on greens with pinenuts, different kinds of roe, and dressed with an oil vinagrette. Fantastic. I'm normally not a fan of ebi, but I loved it here, and every ingredient played its part: the crunch of the pinenuts, the saltiness of the roe, the sweetness of the vinagrette. Just great.
Appetizer Two was Tuna Tartare, which started with a patty of raw tuna, looking kind of like steak tartare. It was topped by scallions, raisins (!), pinenuts, coconut flakes and a mango soy sauce; again, a perfect combination of textures and flavors, outdoing the Montauk Salad.
Appetizer Three was the Uni Coco, Uni topped with coconut milk, uni and tobiko roe, and some other sashimi. Sooooo good and creamy, served in a martini glass. Actually, at this point I should note that one of the reasons that we loved this place so much is that the accoutrements were so neat; my girlfriend is really into ceramics, and she was impressed by the various plates, dishes and cups we used throughout the evening. And as the martini glass exemplifies, the food was often served in really innovative fashion. Anyway, this was the best of the three cold appetizers.
With that, we moved onto the first of our three hot appetizers, the miso-marinated grilled seabass, sitting on a mixture of shiitake and enoki mushrooms and spinach, in miso sauce. Tasty if you like seabass, but not as good, IMO, as the cold appetizers.
Appetizer Five was the unquestioned, no-doubt highlight of our night: the Eel Napoleon. The layers from top to bottom: a large portion of unagi sitting atop a mashed mixture of eel, pumpkin and ginger, itself bifurcated by a crispy wonton that looked like a really long potato chip. The mash itself rested on a cake of fried tofu. Each component layer was delicious, but if you somehow mustered the acumen to eat all the layers at once, the effect was sublime. It was actually like eating the tastiest napoleon imaginable. Unless you don't like eel, this is a must-eat.
The sixth and final appetizer was Anago Japonesque, a mixture of Anago, whitefish and crab immersed in a puree of ground yam and a burdock sauce, topped with a gingko nut. It wasn't the Eel Napoleon, but it was damn good. And it was served in this cool little porcelain box that looked like a music box, which just added to the incredibly unique experience.
After these appetizers, the sushi course was actually anticlimactic, really by no fault of its own. It was quite small, probably to compensate for all the appetizers we got: each of us got three pieces of the Banana Boat roll (spicy tuna and fried banana), three pieces of the Dinosaur roll (deep-fried shrimp dusted with cornmeal, i think), and one piece each of maguro, sake and hamachi nigiri. For the first time ever, I liked the maguro best of the three, which is more a comment on how good the maguro was than any complaint about the other two. But all in all, after the appetizers, the sushi was kind of an epilogue.
Finally, we had dessert, green tea tiramisu and tofu pannacotta. Not really that much to say about these, they were decent, but not great, and we were so full anyway. All in all, the place was just a fantastic eating experience, after the initial stumble. I'd highly recommend getting several appetizers if anyone goes. If I didn't mention it before, GO EAT THERE!
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