The Japanese hideaway Tsukushi (300 E. 41st St. near 2nd Ave., 212-599-8888) is a bit less hidden than it used to be. We observed Tuesday night that its black awning now bears the restaurant's name in small white letters. In Roman characters, even. What next, a wall of plasma screens?
Inside, little had changed since our last visit six months earlier. The mood was casual and fun, in a subdued way. The crowd was overwhelmingly Japanese. As she had before, our server (fluent in English) steered us non-Japanese speakers into a multi-course omakase, and this was fine with us. (And, as before, I couldn't help but think nihongo-speaking regulars must be able to order smaller meals if they so choose -- especially those who arrive late in the evening at the counter, where they nurse their "keep bottles" of shochu.)
Once again we were served a procession of homey dishes, made and presented with finesse. And once again the meal had a rhythm and logic to it, alternating cooking methods, rising gradually in richness and intensity of flavor. We'd hoped to see more evidence of spring in the vegetables, but this was a delicious, satisfying dinner nonetheless. Here's what we got:
-- A perfectly poached egg in cool, slightly sweetened dashi with one beautiful green okra pod (and a dab of wasabi on the edge of the bowl). Clear, clean flavors, a promising start to the meal.
-- Shirataki (yam noodles) dressed with mentaiko (spicy cod roe) and garnished with shreds of fresh shiitake. This came a tad too cold for the flavors to emerge fully.
-- Sashimi: three pieces each of salmon, hirame (fluke) and crisp, briny octopus. Pretty good but not great. This was the only course that could be called a repeat from our October dinner, though the lineup of fish differed slightly.
-- Two potato-and-beef croquettes with tonkatsu sauce and shredded cabbage. On the dense side, and bigger than they needed to be, as we were slowing down.
-- Grilled nishin (herring) with grated daikon. Bony but tasty, with a nice smoky char in spots.
-- A miso-scented stew with tender chunks of pork and a generous handful of vegetables: carrot, konnyaku, daikon, julienned gobo (burdock), green onion. Outstanding. The miso was present but didn't dominate; this was about the vegetables, which were delicious. It came with wedges of crunchy salt-pickled Japanese cucumber lightly dressed with shoyu, sesame and katsuobushi (shaved dried bonito), the best tsukemono I'd had in some time.
At this point we were asked if we wanted to finish with rice, noodles or such. Sated by now, we pushed back from the table. The bill was $36.50 per person for food. We also had a few glasses of sake, in the $8 to $10 range. Our favorite was a rich, medium-sweet Yamadanishiki, a happy match for these substantial dishes.