2760 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
It’s just beautiful — elegant and spare. Blue lights illuminate the lower half of Hane’s windows all around — useful, since I’m not sure the restaurant is otherwise identified at the door. Inside, the streetside walls are a lovely dark carnation-rose color, while behind the two sushi bars they’re white. The floor is shiny dark hardwood. The bars are black marble, the chairs and tables are black, and all around the periphery plushy banquettes in subtly patterned floral fabric (your rich aunt’s sofa) are illuminated by small, silvery, hanging light fixtures. Behind the bar closest to the door, the inevitable flat-panel TV is muted. (Why do sushi bars need TVs?) But there are large floral arrangements to look at, including on the counters behind the sushi chefs.
Would you believe that this is a branch of the legendary Sushi Ota, the no-frills P.B. strip-mall high temple of sushidom?
There are two other sushi bars within a block, Mukashi at the south end and Azuki a block and a half farther south, across Fifth Avenue. I’ve heard from a reliable source that Yukita Ota, being a gentleman, paid courtesy calls on those restaurants to gently warn them of the competition they’d be facing once Hane opened (of course he knows that he’s the biggest cheese), and perhaps to apologize, or something. But, yes, it’s here at last — Ota’s come to town!
Ota-san himself is still in P.B. some nights, but the food at the new location is nearly identical, if vastly more accessible to gaijin, due to the difference in the new restaurant’s construction and even personnel. Face it, Sushi Ota is something of an ordeal: cramped, ugly, crowded, noisy, hard to find (Vogue’s Jeffrey Steingarten got totally lost looking for it a few years ago), with not a lot of English spoken — and it’s so hard to get a reservation for the bar that even Samurai Jim’s martial arts sensei, who knows Ota personally, had to settle for table service when we ate there last year. To eat at Ota’s own station, you must reserve a couple of months ahead: Vacationing sushi cultists from Japan book their bar-seats before they’ve bought their plane tickets.
And now that the word is out, expect a crush here, too. Saint Steve and I were able to slip in spontaneously for an early-evening Wednesday sushi-orgy and sat right down at the bar. But ten days later, when I phoned on a Saturday to ask about “hours open,” the joint was audibly jam-packed and jumpin’.
Once seated, we quickly discovered that all the chefs at Hane (which is pronounced hah-NAY) speak English reasonably well (and the one gaijin at the counter, TJ, speaks Japanese fluently). There’s a lot of joking camaraderie among them that extends to the customers. Ota is hard, Hane is easy.
At the bar, you can watch artists creating edible, evanescent art. (You look, admire, then send it right down your digestive system.) Clearly these chefs have undergone the lengthy, strenuous Japanese sushi apprenticeship. (The only comparably rigorous process in the world is the French chef–apprenticeship system.) The fish aren’t displayed under the counter here but are kept chilled and individually wrapped. Watch the chefs’ discipline, their knife skills, their meticulous cleanliness (rewrapping the fish and then swabbing off the surface between species). After this, you may wince when you watch your less stringent, spike-haired, hang-loose-dude neighborhood-sushi chef at work.
We started out intending to order a standard sashimi combo plate, but when we saw a chef farther down the bar setting up an omakase sashimi, it looked a lot more fun, so we chose that instead. (The price was the same.) There was fatty toro (tuna belly), as silky and marbled as Wagyu beef. And top-quality, ultra-fresh uni, tucked into an empty citrus shell, along with crisp slices of slim Japanese cucumber and mirugai, giant clam, its somewhat chewy texture and buttery flavor contrasting with the pillowy, all-ocean sea urchin. The sweet raw shrimp (ama ebi) were the sweetest, and raw mackerel offered a clean taste and rich texture. The mackerel head and skeleton are arranged (as at Ota) into a boatlike shape with the skeleton as the sail. When you’re done, the chefs remove the mackerel boat and shrimp heads and cook them. Shrimp heads can be fried or grilled; we tried grilled and decided fried works better — grilling leaves a harder texture, with fewer edible parts. The deep-fried mackerel head and bones are crisp and delicious as potato chips. Steve bit into the skeleton. “Bacon!” he exclaimed doggily, teasing, “Fish bacon!”
We also tried the regular sushi sampler. Couples be warned: the plate offers only one of each item, except for a few tiny nigiri (one pair filled with tuna in the center, the other with Japanese mountain potato, yamaimo), so you just have to negotiate who gets what bite of uni, salmon roe, mirugai, hamachi, eel, snapper, squid, mackerel, and more. All pristine, with classic Ota-style rice, which is utterly neutral, less sweet than at other purveyors.
There were a couple of minor disappointments. “Honeymoon Oyster” (uni, oyster, masago caviar, and quail egg) is supposed to be glugged down all at once, but here the pair were twice the normal size (I should complain?) and, more problematically, nested in craggy oyster shells that looked as if they’d cut your lips. Eating them piece-by-piece with chopsticks isn’t quite the same. Then, too, I remember an excellent version at Ota of one of my favorite dishes, chawan mushi, a delicate egg custard studded with goodies, including gingko nuts (part of the standard recipe). No gingko nuts in this version (just numerous types of mushrooms), and the custard was thicker, less trembly than I remembered — all in all, the difference between a very nice dish and a thrill. The menu also includes a number of Japanese and fusion appetizers and a few entrées, which I’ll try another time — perhaps.
The sake list isn’t as long (or as top-end scary) as at Ota, but I was very pleased with a dry nigori “fizzy water” I hadn’t tried before. It seemed better suited to sashimi than the sweeter Takara (from Emeryville), the sushi-bar standard. This one costs a bit more ($15), but either the bottle was larger than Takara’s or the drier brew drank more slowly — one bottle (unshared but for a single sip) easily made it through the meal. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down its name, and Ota doesn’t offer a website to recheck this stuff, but it’s the only $15 nigori on the list.
Well, the secret’s out now. Hane is Ota Two, or Ota, too. Better make a res from now on. And if you don’t and it’s too crowded — well, Azuki (across the street, south a block and a half) isn’t as awesome, but it’s decent and fun — more fusion-y, more party-rolling — and you’ll have a good time there as well, even if it isn’t Ota.
Bargain Bite: Happy hour at Puerto La Boca
I like to make fun of the term “happy hour,” but at the end of a mad, bad, frustrating day, I hit happy hour at Puerto La Boca with Saint Steve, and we both actually get much happier. Fulfilling food, good, serious wine and beer, fabulous value.
Bottom line: good house wine, $3 a glass; call beer, $3.50; and 30 percent off all appetizers (normally $3–$12) from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. weeknights in the bar. For under $30 (including two drinks each) plus tip, two of us grazed and tippled until we could do so no more, and if that isn’t happiness, I’ll eat my hat and call it uni.
Happy hour is in the bar only, but you can sit at a table there, as we did, knowing we’d be filling the table with food. Steve ordered a Sierra Nevada, I went with the house white — Bodegas Orfila chardonnay from Buenos Aires (not our local Orfila), a classy but unpretentious choice that delighted me more with every sip. Fresh, crisp, non-oaky, balanced between dry and fruity, it’s a terrific food wine.
Puerto La Boca is Argentine, a culinary nation that puts much of its creative inspiration into the “teatime” tapas served as appetizers here. “Teatime” in Argentina is 5:00 p.m.; dinnertime is 11:00 p.m. — and fat effing chance you’ll find a restaurant open any earlier. So, we’re not talking the queen’s dainty cucumber sandwiches but rich, interesting dishes to stave off starvation after the workday. If you’re not Argentine, you’ll probably call it “dinner.”
The table-goodies include warm baguette slices, cold, spiced butter flecked with chives and some sort of red pepper (don’t ask, it was too cold to taste), plus pitted black Greek-style olives and a ramekin of super chimichurri — Argentina’s national salsa of minced parsley, vinegar, oil, seasonings, a load of garlic, and a hint of heat — to spread on bread or meat.
Appetizers include three types of sausage, all delicious: chorizo (the lean, tight-knit Spanish version, not the looser, fattier Mexican rendition); the more elaborate and expensive chistorra (with garlic, wine, and parsley in the mix); and my favorite, morcilla (blood sausage). All blood sausage starts with pig blood and bread crumbs, stuffed into a substantial casing that gets pleasingly crackly when grilled. Its interior texture is soft and nearly creamy. Irish breakfast “black pudding” is the basic version; French and Italian sausage-makers add more interesting spices (and Italians may add raisins and/or pine nuts). The Argentine version includes soft chewy bits of diced pork-fat. I’ve been madly craving this since I first tasted it on the dark and windy South Atlantic Coast in a mixed grill that proved my best meal all across Patagonia. Steve, a blood-sausage virgin, fell in love with it in two bites. Splish it with that sharp chimichurri to cut the fat, and you’re in hog heaven. Happy-hour price: $2.45 for one of these big, fat, luscious links.
Empanadas are Argentina’s most famous contribution to world cuisine — savory pastry pockets with a wide variety of fillings (spinach, ham, cheese, and chicken, as well as our choices). At happy hour, they cost just $2.07. The beef filling is complex, with shredded stewed beef, onions, and chopped hard-cooked eggs. (Alas, Greek olives and raisins have left the mixture since I last ate here. It’s not the same without them.) Steve was delighted by the corn filling. “Remember at Riviera, how the creamed corn was canned, with no taste? This really tastes like corn.” I took a bite and said, “And like butter and cream, too.”
We weren’t crazy for the tough pulpo (marinated octopus) in a golden sauce of parsley, garlic, potatoes, and paprika. Better choices might include mejillones provenzal (sautéed mussels with garlic and white wine) or rabas mixtas (fried calamari, shrimp and veggies). I’ve eaten seafood here, and it’s usually well treated. Other tapas options include sweetbreads sautéed in sherry, sautéed mushrooms with garlic and herbs, and provoleta, grilled provolone cheese with olive oil and oregano, the best grilled-cheese non-sandwich you ever ate. Top “happy” price: $8.80 (for mussels), and portions are generous.
If you’re seriously famished, you need to know about matambre (at happy hour, $7.56). The name means “kill hunger,” and that it does. It’s a galantine of pounded-thin beef wrapped around carrots, spinach, parsley, and hard-cooked eggs, cooked, and then served chilled and thinly sliced. The colorful vegetable inlay makes a vivid eyeful, and La Boca adds a scattering of pickled Italian giardiniera vegetables to liven up the flavors. It comes with a mound of deli-style potato salad (called rusa, “Russian salad”), same as any yanqui version. If the galantine seems a tad bland, apply chimichurri liberally. Puerto La Boca’s matambre emphatically outshines the version I ate in Patagonia (land of guanacos and flamingos and sheep, sheep, sheep) — but then, I never got to hit the fleshpots of Buenos Aires up north, where the food has to be a lot better.
The happy hour is great, but I’m also hoping that when you’re feeling semi-flush and want a treat, you’ll go for a whole dinner. (You may have guessed: I love this restaurant.) You don’t have to eat a high-priced steak (although they’re grass-fed, healthful, and awesome, and the mixed grill — parrillada mixta — is carnie heaven). Argentina is at least as Italian in population and cuisine as it is Spanish. The restaurant owner’s grandfather emigrated from Italy, and Puerto La Boca is named for the “Little Italy” portside district of Buenos Aires where his ship landed. The luscious pastas and pizzas are bargains at $15–$20, including a killer spinach and two-cheese cannelloni, and (swoon) four-cheese fettuccine. So, yes, thrifty eaters and lacto-vegetarians can all indulge to the max here, and they, too, can call their cardiologists just before expiring with blissful smiles and traces of melted mozzarella on their lips. When life is just too damned awful, an interlude of good food and wine can bring a truly happy hour or two.
2060 India Street, Little Italy
2760 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
- 4.5 stars
- (Excellent to Exceptional)
HOURS: Tuesday–Sunday, 5:00–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: From a few bucks for simple nigiri up to $25 for large, creative “party rolls.” Figure about $50 per person (including beer and lower-priced sake), plus tip and tax, for simple sushi and sashimi, more if you want fancy rolls, lobster, or top-shelf sake.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Pristinely fresh sushi, sashimi, some Japanese soups, appetizers, and entrées. Well-edited lists of sakes, beers, wines.
PICK HITS: Uni, fatty toro, sweet shrimp, any other species you love, omakase sashimi platter.
NEED TO KNOW: New branch of legendary Sushi Ota, much more comfortable but smaller. Reserve, or go as early in the evening and early in the week as possible. Worth eating at the sushi bar to interact with chefs and to watch their exquisite technique and cleanliness. Sushi-bar seats at perfect height (no physical or acrophobia issues); wheelchair-accessible tables. Loud when busy — probably constantly, from now on.