Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Night to Remember

The evening was dry and the light of day still to be had. Gangnam was beginning to come alive, as it does in the nine-to-fivers' after-work hours, with friends and roamers milling about and street vendors staking out their share of the sidewalk for the nighttime rush.

Four of us crossed the street to hail a taxi moving in the right direction. A friend, Il Han, was taking a few of us out for sushi. The invite was preceded by the questions "Do you like sushi?" and "Really? You like sushi?" This shouldn't suggest that he didn't believe my response, but rather that he was concerned that our definitions of sushi may be different. In the pacific northwest of the United States, we have our share of sushi restaurants. Sushi has also made its way across the country and into such out-of-the-way nooks as Traverse City, Michigan and Crested Butte, Colorado. With that said, sushi can come in all shapes and sizes (and rolls), and who can know if my sushi is your sushi. After all, English has made its way around the world and is a bit different in every port: You say california roll, I say una-ju.

The taxi zipped us up the busy road, around a couple of corners, and after a short time, we landed in the parking lot of Lee Myung Whan's Japanese Restaurant. Upon entering, Il Han suggested we take seats at the bar. It's more interesting than taking a private room, because we can see what's going on.

I'll tell you now that I had no idea what I was in for. The restaurant was quiet. One gentleman sat at the bar as we came in and I don't know when he left. We noted evidence of other guests in trays of sushi being taken from the counter and disappearing down a narrow halls, but the place was otherwise empty. The benches, tables and bar were of wood. Our stools were as well. The shelves behind the bar-those supporting bottles of sake, soju, and wine, among other house specialties-were dark and robust; they rose to the ceiling.

We were in luck, Il Han told us. The owner is in tonight and he'll be preparing our sushi for us. Christine, Sasha and I were delivered small wooden trays with wasabi, and pickled radish and ginger set to one side. The trays were put far enough in front of us that Mr. Lee could reach over the display case on the bar and place a piece of sushi on them every now and then. He began to do just that after Il Han was given a tray with a glimmering stack of bean noodles wound upon it. He would not be eating sushi this evening. Il Han prefers sashimi.

Beer was ordered for the gluten tolerant and a bottle of red wine was delivered to me. (I am well aware that people don't drink red wine with fish, much less sushi, but I think I've mentioned in earlier posts that I'm not the most cultured of beverage consumers. And I like red wine.) It was clear that wine was not a popular drink in this establishment, as I was offered a wine glass with enough dust in it to fluff up my nostrils. I took it as a sign that this place was genuine.

A piece of tuna laid over a firm pile of rice was the first piece of sushi placed on our wooden boards and the first to be eaten as well. I have never tasted tuna so richly. Its cold and firm texture filling my mouth from tongue to palate and cheek to cheek, I chewed and didn't want to stop.

I had mentioned to Sasha only a night or two earlier that I didn't think I had the ability to taste raw fish so much as feel it. I've always enjoyed the texture of sushi, but I really can't say that I've tasted the difference between tuna and white fish and white fish and salmon.

That has changed.

The heavenly tuna (that tasted like tuna) was followed by white fish (which tasted like white fish), the white fish followed by more fish. I don't have a list and I couldn't recap the entire menu, but the things I was served were of a world unknown to me. Il Han's sushi redefined food for me.

The white fish was a special kind of tenuous, but not stringy by any means. One tuna, which is meant to be eaten frozen, was a patchwork of brilliant red flesh bound together by melty white strips of connective tissue. We were served Korea's musky miso soup and welcomed occasional deliveries of tempura, scallion pizza, yam chips, and other things I cannot recall as an individual moment. Sake arrived, toasts were made, I drank more wine, the owner and the chef offered their glasses, which we dutifully filled, and more toasts were made.

Several pieces were brand new to me that evening. And I gather several pieces I may never feel cross my pallet again, although that remains to be seen. The sea urchin was served on rice and wrapped in seaweed paper. The bright orange sacks looked soft enough to pet from where I sat and I had little idea of what to expect when they reached my mouth. The word sea urchin evokes the image of The Little Mermaid's evil octopus witch--and I don't know why, so if I were doubtful about anything that evening, it was the sea urchin.

To be honest, I can't say I've been dreaming of consuming more of it, but what I remember of the sea urchin that night is its cold creaminess. The moment it hit my tongue, its softness melted into the edges of my mouth where the cheeks meet the gums. My teeth were bathed in it, my tongue had no way of knowing what to do with it. It couldn't be pushed, nor could it be tossed aside, nor chewed, nor spat, nor gargled. It only melted in good time. And for that alone, it was delicious.

Abalone was the urchin's polar opposite. Raw as well as sauteed, this piece is delicious. The raw abalone must be chewed gracefully. It seems to fall into sheets of dissolving cartilage. The type of creature from which it was cut rested in the display case directly before me, and I could see the bony mollusk breathing at times.

The eel, which is a favorite of mine back home, ruined me for eel back home.

Somewhat early on in the evening, Il Han told us the owner was expressing amazement at our rate of eating. He would put something in front of us, we would eat it, he would feel it his duty to put something in front of us, we would feel it our duty to eat it, his position defined it as his role to put something in front of us, our cultural background would direct us to eat it immediately. He felt we ate too fast, we felt he fed us too fast. Thank goodness Il Han was there to translate. We slowed down.

Eventually we were served a divine piece of sushi. I can't tell you what it looked like or how it felt or tasted. We were then served a piece of the fish's skin after it had been seared. It was curled up and thick but oh-so tender, warm and sweet. This was puffer fish, we were told, and the owner held up a fish-shaped skin with round holes missing where the Fugu's big eyes had been and we recognized the all too well-known coloring of the grey and white fish. Mr. Lee is certified to serve the fish.

He is also certified to serve the intestine of this fish, which, after being toasted for a short time, looked like a perfectly roasted marshmallow. In my mouth it even felt a little like a marshmallow, with the skin just taught enough to create some tension on my teeth, and the warm center flowing out, coating my tongue, teeth, and cheeks, and exiting by way of my throat.

I admit that is when the camera came out. This already unbelievable night reached its apex with a puffer fish feast. I exclaimed that I couldn't pass up a photo opp. with the Fugu skin, and as I turned to get my camera, the owner turned to get his puffer fish--the live one.

The evening continued with photos and drinks and sushi and soup and laughter and talk. Sea cucumber joined the menu, also a treat with a crunch that didn't exactly crunch, though it resisted as if it might.

I cannot remember anymore where the evening began. Was it in the taxi, where we chatted about the school and the nearing completion of our program? Was it when we arrived at the restaurant and took seats at the bar? Was it that first bite of tuna or the last slurp of soup? Or was it some time much earlier, when I was asked if I like sushi, when I tasted my first bite of sushi, when I didn't think I'd ever eat sushi?

The night ended with a dessert of fruit and small glasses of raspberry wine and several more photos of everyone together. We learned from Il Han about sushi etiquette and Korean traditions, as well as about him and his own experience in the city and country in which we all now live. The owner came around to sit with us. He showed us some baseball memorabilia. I showed off my Korean by (surely) offending Korean-speaking parties when I asked to be served cat. What I MEANT to say was I like cats (as in to cuddle with, not to eat). Ah, the intricacies of linguistics.

We climbed into a taxi that would take us back to our apartment building and thanked Il Han again as the doors closed and the car began to roll. This was one of those nights that will never happen in this way again, but simply knowing that such people exist for company and that such food exists for nourishment is enough for my senses tonight.

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