Monday, June 18, 2012

Neta Check-In (New York, NY)

Softshell Crab Kara-age

On a recent evening, I was finally able to return to Neta to follow up on my first excellent, but all-too-brief, meal. This time around, I crossed my fingers that the Little One would last, took the plunge, and requested omakase. The hostess sat us before the personable co-chef-owners Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau, who were hard at work at the counter, flanked by around ten sous chefs, hands and fingers ceaselessly moving even as they chatted with us.

There are two omakases available: a $95 version and a $135 version. My convive and I opted for the condensed ($95) omakase experience, thinking it would take about an hour or so. The meal turned out to be rather the opposite of condensed, with twenty courses in all of often mind-blowingly good food. Fortuitously, the Little One fell asleep somewhere in the middle of the meal so we were able to finish.

The first course was something I'd tried on my previous visit: Dungeness crab with cucumber, wild parsley, dashi vinaigrette. It's a thoughtful combination of ingredients, which came flawlessly dressed as before, with generous chunks of juicy, fresh crab. But where last time, the crab absolutely sang as an ingredient -- really, without hyperbole, it was almost as sweet as candy -- this time, I'm guessing because it's the end of the season, the crab was less sweet (though still quite good), and the dish was more about the balance of flavors.

Dungeness Crab with Cucumber, Wild Parsley, Dashi

The next course was a wonderful dish of shaved tuna tossed with daikon radish, chives and a wee bit of fried panko (omitted from my wheat-free version). The tuna is shaved off a giant rack of ribs to order, not just for dramatic effect. Chef Kim explained that it stays fresher on the bone, since there is less surface area to oxidize.

Freshly Shaved Tuna, Daikon, Chives

Here's the entire, four to five foot long rack of tuna, which the sous chefs brought out every time Chef Kim needed to shave off additional pieces of fish. Very dramatic!

Rack of Tuna

The third dish, scallop with Santa Barbara uni, mushrooms and foie gras, was similar to the absolutely, jaw-droppingly delicious grilled whole scallop with uni, garlic soy butter and lime we had last time, but dolled up with some additional delights. It was intriguing to compare and contrast the firm / tender textures of the mushrooms (maitake, I think), foie and scallops; the richness of the uni and foie; and the earthy qualities and slight bite of the mushrooms and foie. Both scallop preparations were phenomenal, but in very different ways. The more restrained garlic soy butter version was all about the simple, but undeniable, quality of ingredients. This version was all decadence, the kind of food Richie Rich must eat while soaking in his solid gold bathtub.

Scallop with Uni, Mushroom, Foie

The next course was split for my convive and me: He had the softshell kara-age with corn tempura and yomogi leaf (from Central Park, Chef Kim told us; pictured at the top of this post), while I had fugu kara-age, battered in a potato flour-based batter and served with a wedge of lemon. Blowfish is a pretty darned impressive thing to receive at a sushi restaurant and it's doubly impressive to receive it as part of a $95 omakase. But the real star was actually the softshell karage with corn tempura and yomogi leaf. The presentation was stunning, the barely-there white tempura on the crisply fried yomogi leaf recalling snow on a leaf. My convive said it was delicious and I noticed that there was hardly any oil left behind on the white paper -- the sign of good hot oil in the fryer.

The fugu was delicately flavored and moist, fried on the bone (some of which I ate and kinda enjoyed eating). A gluten free batter will never be as light as a wheat flour-based batter, but this was nicely done.

Fugu Kara-age

Next, both of us received Szechuan spiced salmon with bonito flakes, crispy rice. It was a bit of a trompe l'oeil, made to resemble nigiri, but in place of shari, there was a layer of crispy rice -- the kind you might encounter in Zhejian cuisine. This was covered with a layer of chopped, sushi-grade salmon, a bit of spicy sauce somewhat similar to aioli and a big kerplunk of bonito. The heady, smoky scent of bonito hit your nose at the same time the spice hit your tongue, a thought-provoking and wonderful combination of flavors and textures. Unlike other spicy salmon preparations, the spicy sauce was not there to mask less-than-fresh fish. It's conservatively applied to allow you to taste the freshness of the fish.

Szechuan Spiced Salmon

At this point in the meal, we had a sequence of nigiri. The shari on all nigiri pieces was incredibly, remarkably good, worthy of odes. The rice had the perfect amount of bite, the perfect balance of chew and give, and perfectly balanced seasonings. I really don't think you can find better shari anywhere in the city.

Unfortunately, at this point, my documentation became a little spotty since I kept getting distracted by the food and forgetting to take photos before eating. If I recall correctly, we started with a piece of rich toro nigiri (one of the pieces not pictured, in my excitement to eat), followed by Scottish salmon nigiri with a dab of Schezuan peppercorn sauce on top. The salmon was pristine, so lovely that I completely had to set aside my bias against salmon as neta. The dab of peppercorn sauce (the same sauce used on the spicy salmon and crispy rice plate, I think) did not overwhelm the flavor of the perfectly fresh salmon. It tasted as though the salmon had been alive just moments ago.

Scottish Salmon Nigiri

Next, we had pieces of pleasantly snappy kanpachi nigiri (not pictured, unfortunately, but beautiful with its strip of silver skin and garnished unusually with a few very fine strands of I think fried sweet potato) and tender sawara nigiri (not pictured). Given the season, the sawara was not very oily or pungent at all. The flavor was surprisingly delicate.

I almost pounced on the Santa Barbara uni nigiri before I could photograph it, too, but happily my convive detained me just long enough to snap a picture. The uni was even better than it was last time: sweet -- gloriously sweet! -- and briny. It was the first time my convive had ever enjoyed uni, he said, though he has tried it a few times and found it appalling. This was the kind of uni that converts haters into true believers.

Uni Nigiri

Our next dish of uni porridge with king mushroom, summer truffle reminded me a tiny bit of congee, except that the rice retained its texture in much in the same way that risotto rice does. The subtle earthy fragrance of summer truffle shone against the backdrop of the subtly sweet uni inflected porridge. King mushrooms emphasized the pleasantly chewy textures in the porridge.

Uni Porridge with King Mushroom

The next bite was a soft shell crab tempura hand roll (battered in potato flour). The batter was very light and crisp and gave way to juicy crab underneath. There was a potent dab of wasabi underneath the crab, which I enjoyed, but I found myself regretting that I didn't get more of the sweet flavor of crab on my tongue before the wasabi took over.

Soft Shell Crab Tempura Handroll

At this point, Chef Kim mixed it up a bit and threw in a lime granita with sea salt and tequila. It was very refreshing and tasted exactly like a mini margarita. This may or may not have been the intended effect, but it turned out to be a wonderful chaser for the wasabi still lingering on my tongue.

Lime Granita with Tequila and Sea Salt

The limey palate cleanse helped prepare us for the more subtle, delicate flavors of our next course, a piece of gunkanmaki filled with abalone, lotus root and foie gras. This was really interesting and unusual, a very nice combination of flavors and textures. I loved the textural play of chewy abalone with melty foie and juicy lotus root.

Abalone, Lotus Root and Foie Gras Gunkanmaki

After the nigiris, we had a sequence of three makis. The first, an unagi roll with a fragrant, barely spicy pepper that I think was shishito, was surprisingly subtle and restrained. The eel was not overly sweet, which allowed the delicate natural flavors of the fresh fish to shine. The skin had been seared with a torch, which removed the chewy, slippery quality that I think some dislike in eel. The result was lovely: The eel had a hint of smoke and char, which was absolutely delightful alongside the sweet, vegetal scent of peppers.

Unagi Roll

A Neta roll (toro and scallion) was more conventional, but very nicely executed. There was hardly any rice in the roll, just enough to provide structure for the chopped toro innards. Nori was, as always, perfectly crisp (which I understand is no small feat when the weather was as humid as it was that evening), but in this roll, it was particularly noticeable alongside the toro. Biting into the roll was like biting into the best kind of chocolate chip cookie, the crispness of the outer layer giving way to the oozy middle.

Toro and Scallion Roll

The final roll was kinuta maki ponzu: hirame, shrimp and shiso, wrapped in marinated daikon radish and garnished with sourgrass, an ingredient Chef Kim noted had also been locally scavenged. Flavors were brilliant and vivid. The "springiness" of the hirame and shrimp evoked the texture of well made sushi rice.

Kinuta Maki Ponzu

Chef Kim asked us whether we were still hungry and whether we wanted anything else before dessert. We were quite frankly stuffed and already reaching that euphoric, post-Thanksgiving state, but even though we declined, he treated us to one more piece of akami nigiri. The akami was very fresh and of excellent quality.

Akami Nigiri

The final savory course was a palate cleanser, a refreshing bite of ume and shiso handroll. The shiso leaves reset our tastebuds, but the tiny dab of sour ume paste poked them again just to make sure they were still awake.

Ume and Shiso Handroll

Dessert was surprisingly edgy for a sushi restaurant. Neta makes a few very interesting ice creams, including a carrot ginger concoction. We had the pleasure of trying the summer truffle ice cream, a slightly spicy, sweet concoction with shaved truffles over top. It was intriguing.

Truffle Ice Cream

My convive tried an equally delicious, but more conventional peanut butter ice cream. The texture of both ice creams was rich, yet light, and served at a high enough temperature for the full range of flavors to come through.

Peanut Butter Ice Cream

Much has been made of the decor (or supposed lack of it) in this restaurant, but it reads as warm and accessible to me. The focus is clearly on the open kitchen. Even if you choose to sit at a table -- a terrible move in my opinion, because you miss all the fun: a rack of tuna being hefted out on a huge metal platter, the whoosh and flame of something being set afire -- you are never more than a few feet away from the kitchen. The seats are comfortable and in the early evening light filtering in through the curtains, the space is even beautiful in its utilitarian way. (I rather despise Ayn Rand, but Howard Roark does come to mind.) 

As far as baby friendliness goes, you can't find nicer staff in NYC or a more pleasant vibe at an early dinner. As I noted last time, the space itself isn't entirely conducive to children -- there are only a few seats that have room for strollers next to them -- and though there is one large, very clean bathroom for diaper changes, there is of course no changing table. (To be fair, I haven't been to any NYC restaurant with a changing table in the bathroom.) The staff make up for what the space lacks. Everyone was exceptionally nice to the Little One. Chef Kim offered him ice cream or something else to eat. I had to decline, since the LO is not quite at the ice cream eating stage, yet, but really, I do think Neta will be the first place the LO tries sushi someday when he finally has some teeth. I can't think of a more delicious place. 

Food Rating: A+
Baby Friendly Rating: A

Please see Girl Eats City's April 4, 2012 review here

61 West 8th Street 
New York, NY 10011
(212) 505-2605

Hours:  Mon-Sat 5–10:30pm; Sun Closed

1 comment:

  1. I really liked the kinuta maki ponzu the last time I dined at Neta. I wish they had the soft shell crab dish you had. It seems the menu changes as some of the dishes you show here, and some that I had last time are not here. Thanks for the photo of uni porridge, my waiter told me it was congee,,, i guess he was incorrect. It looks awesome. I'm a big uni fan.