Shock of the Raw

Hanabi's sushi captures the pastel flavors of the sea

One of my central experiences at sushi restaurants in the city lately is hearing weirdly dissonant music, whether "Money Honey" by those pop munchkins of the 1970s the Bay City Rollers, or -- at Hanabi, a handsome new place sleek with blond wood on Lower Haight -- a Muzak version of the theme from Gone With the Wind. I half-expected to glance at the menu and find a Scarlett roll or a plate of Rhett sashimi, a major effect of California on sushi culture being the conferring of cutesy (and often Hollywoody) names. Instead my eye settled on the shyly punnish Rock'n'Roll ($4.25), a very West Coast combination of avocado and unagi -- that is, eel.

One does not quite like even the idea of eel -- a squirming, serpentine monster of the deep, some varieties of which can electrocute people. Eel also differs from almost everything else on the typical sushi menu because it's not served raw but instead broiled with a savory sauce, which gives it a rich, meaty character quite unlike the various uncooked fishes' subtle, pastel flavors of the sea.

"Despite what many people believe," writes James Peterson in his authoritative tome Fish and Shellfish (known colloquially at our house as "The Fish Bible"), "raw seafood is much milder and more delicate than cooked ... [and] the most subtle differences among various types can be discerned only when the seafood is eaten raw."

But sushi connoisseurship, like oenophilia, is a rarefied pursuit. For most people, the eating of raw fish (along with rice, soy, and wasabi, the nose-clearing green mustard) is simply pleasurable, once the natural Western hesitance about eating uncooked flesh has been surmounted. (As Peterson writes, anyone serving sushi at home should buy the fish from a Japanese market and freeze it for at least 24 hours to kill parasites. And he doesn't even mention the thrillingly toxic fugu, or blowfish, as a candidate for sushi presentations at home. In Japan, only state-licensed professionals are permitted to prepare fugu for human consumption, yet despite that precaution, several people die each year from eating the fish.)

Hanabi might not be the best sushi place in town, but it certainly delivers the goods at very fair prices. The Boss, to my surprise, fastened immediately upon the eel-and-avocado roll, which we matched with a California roll ($3.75) -- stuffed with crab and avocado -- as a pair of starters. Both were served in thumb-size pieces on handsome platters of lacquered wood. The crab and avocado (a classic combination) merged naturally into a tangy-sweet creaminess that made an attractive contrast to the lustier eel, but I mixed a little too much wasabi into my tiny porcelain dish of soy sauce and briefly wounded my sinuses.

The difference between sashimi and sushi is straightforward: The former is simply slices of raw fish, artfully presented with wasabi and paper-thin wisps of pickled ginger, while the latter is slices of raw fish arrayed on little logs of steamed rice, also with mustard and ginger.

The nigiri sushi ($15.95) included beautifully translucent, pinkish-orange slices of sake (salmon), whose light buttery flavor and velvet meltingness were much clearer than when cooked. There was also ikura (salmon roe), tiny orange pinpricks arrayed on rice wrapped in seaweed and tasting gently of brine. Slices of tako (octopus) were like rubbery leaves of radicchio, milk-white but fringed with purplish red; and a lone shrimp was distinctly sweet.

The brashest member of the moriasawe sashimi plate ($13.95) was the saba (mackerel), a gray-blue piece of fish that tasted too fish-oily to me but just right to the Boss, who ordered another round on a separate plate ($3.50). The maguro (tuna) was mild-tasting and a muted raspberry color; the halibut, mild-tasting and grayish-white.

Two-thirds of the way through the meal, I felt I would finish up still starving, but Japanese food is slyly filling, and as we walked out of the restaurant I felt I'd had enough, or maybe even a little too much.

At lunch, the Mystery Writer ordered the Lunch Box ($5.50), which turned out to be a lovely black-lacquer tray containing a cup of miso soup, piles of rice, wasabi, and pickled ginger, and a choice of items that for him included the California roll and the maguro. I feared the low price foreshadowed a terribly inadequate lunch, but the tray was amply stocked with food and there was, as always, the unexpected fillingness of sushi.

I, meanwhile, started ordering up rolls right and left: a California roll of my very own, the eel-rich Rock'n'Roll, the tekka maki ($3.50) -- a roll stuffed with chunks of maguro -- and the signature Hanabi roll ($4.50). This last (the Japanese equivalent of a gyro sandwich) was stuffed with crab, salmon, avocado, and -- strikingly -- a tempura-fried prawn in each slice that added (presumably at the cost of some authenticity) just the right note of crunch and oiliness.

Hanabi does have a bar, on the other side of which the chefs are busily slicing away; but you can't sit there, because for some reason they've pushed tables right up against it. The layout feels off, as if they ordered more tables and chairs than they had room for, and I felt a little uncomfortable sitting at a table above which the chef loomed, like some sort of inquisitive judge. What if I mishandled my wasabi? My chopsticks? Didn't like something? Diners do need their privacy, and a sushi place gives up quite a bit by sacrificing the theater of the bar.

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