Saturday, August 06, 2005

Echigo: You Gots ta Chill.

So my new office is on the Westside. Westside-er, I guess, but still--I have to figure out where to eat lunches now, and last week kind of became Japanese week: Monday was Sasabune, Tuesday was Terried Sake House, and Wednesday was Echigo. I've heard Westsiders raving about Echigo for the past g-d-knows-how-long, so I figured better late than never, and checked it out.

Ok, so here's at least one reason for Echigo's semi-wild popularity--the $10 sushi lunch special (now $11). Here's what's in it, if you can't guess for yourself: tuna, salmon, blah blah blah and a roll of some sort. Cheap, yes; boring, ditto. It's like if I were stranded on a desert island for long enough--wait, desert islands would have way more interesting raw options than that--ok, if I were stranded in KANSAS for long enough, I might be stoked about this selection, but I haven't been, so I didn't bother with it, although all my fellow salarymen sure seemed happy to, since the sushi bar was empty and all I kept hearing was "hachi special," "ni special" "special special" and so forth.

Not content with the Iowan special, I opt for omakase, which the waitress tells me will be between 25 and 30 ducks. Fine. Good way to suss out the place, and still pretty cheap. So there's me at the bar. The chef is positioned diagonally as far away from me as possible, and makes no effort to notice me--his assistant makes and delivers every one of my courses. Been to Sasabune? Then you pretty much know what fish is coming at Echigo, except that at Sasabune, they tell you what each fish is. I know--I should know. I should be able to tell the difference between a bonito and a skipjack by asking each one a question over the phone, but when you soak the things in ponzu sauce (what is it with these Westsiders and their ponzu?), the reception gets a bit crackly. So the assistant hands me a plate with a single piece of fish on it, says nothing, neither he nor the chef answers me most times when I ask about it, and before I know it, I'm being treated to my single piece of contact with the chef himself--he hands me a blue crab roll and tells me what it is. Dude, I've seen more blue crab rolls in my life than George Burns saw cigars, okay? Answer me when I ask what you topped the halibut with, but spare me this useless tidbit--just give the friggin' standard omakase dessert roll to your beleaguered assistant and keep your aloof-record intact.

Oh, and here's something else: if you're an Angeleno sushi-eater, you've probably gotten used to Sasabune's warm-rice/cold-fish dealie. You may love it, you may not, but you're used to it. It doesn't rankle you like it might have the first time that all your rice fell into your soy sauce and splattered all over your $700 big-E Levis. (What? You didn't know that you're supposed to dip the fishside and not the rice in your soy? Yeah, neither did I, and I still do it the wrong way.) So you're okay with warm rice under your sushi. Well, get ready to not be all over again, because Echigo's rice is hot. I mean, it is HOT. Like steaming hot. Like steam is coming from underneath my slice of bonito-skipjack hot. If I waited long enough, I suppose every course would involve something seared. This is too much. I strenuously object.

All this adds up to what I guess is Echigo's theme, at least at lunch: they need to chill. Chill out from being too busy cranking out 11-dollar 10-dollar specials and answer a single freakin' question about the 30-dollar lunch this guy's having. Hell, imagine he's 3 guys, each having a lunch special, and linger for 2 seconds when he demonstrates an interest in what you're serving. Chill out your goddamn rice, too, while you're at it. Warm-and-cold may or may not have something to recommend it. It's a choice. Hot rice just confuses everything. I'm sure there's some ultra-deep explanation for why it works, but it doesn't work, so save it.

How was the fish itself? Pretty good, in fact. Good halibut with something green on top that I really would love to be able to identify for you but can't for obvious reasons; ama ebi in something tangy and quite good and not ponzu for a change, but which I also can't tell you what it was (inexplicably, the shrimp's head never made an appearance--frying the 2-inch thing must just take too long during the lunch rush); nice clean, super-fresh scallop over boiling hot rice--probably the worst example of the temperature contrast...and some other stuff. Oh, and the blue crab roll, which I barely notice anymore when I get them, but I imagine Echigo-san (what, you think he told me his name?) is seriously proud of, since he presented it with such a flourish that I thought they'd changed chefs while my head was down. Nijiya Market serves a spicy octopus handroll for $2.50 that I vastly prefer to any omakase-peddler's blue crab roll--time to get a new end-of-the-line marker, sensei.

Everyone should feel free to write me about this one. Let me know if I totally missed the mark, or that hot rice is the best thing since warm rice, or that I need to lighten up because don't I know that lunch isn't dinner (one of the best sushi meals I've ever had was an impromptu lunch at Asanebo), or that Echigo used to be the new Nozawa but now it's the

Hey, at least it was cheap. Ish.

(Echigo, in some Westside mini-mall with weird parking, mezzanine level.)


Anonymous c said...

You are a badass gastro gansta dwg. It's LUNCH for chrissake! People don't (normally) sit down for a two-sake lunch on a whim, unless those hours are billable. And few, if I may be so presumptuous to say, will hustle the chef with such lofty expectations as wondering where the shrimp head went.

But first question: Was this an all-nigiri affair? If it was, and considering Echigo is Nozawa-nouveau (er, shin-Nozawa), then the cold shoulder/hot rice are exactly what you should have expected. We've spatted over rice temperatures before; I like it warm/hot, but since I wasn't there I don't know exactly how hot it was when you had it.

But back to the cold shoulder issue. I'm not kidding on this one. Salaryman lunch is meant to be: eat, go, no questions asked.

When I ate an "omakase" breakfast at the Tsukiji Wholesale Market in Tokyo last April, (actually you choose from three setto - A, B, or C), the chef did no more than mumble the name of the fish and moved on. We, equally, did no more than nominally nod our heads, ate, and got the heck out to pursue the rest of our days. The narrow 10-seat sushi bar was packed, and there were people waiting on the other side of the curtain. It was certainly not the right occasion to interrupt the pace with a request to have the shrimp head battered and fried.

Granted, the Westside is not Tsukiji, but if it's the old-fashioned nigiri lunch you're after, this sounds pretty close. If you want to sweet talk with ita-san, come back for dinner over a brew or two.

You's gotta chill, dwg.

9:53 AM  
Blogger MEalCentric said...

Yo, $30 rather than the typical $10 lunch fare, to me, it means 3X the attention. Hot rice and cold fish pretty much is cooked fish with rice. And note, "Ninja" market (I can never spell it), makes some pretty decent sushi and bento boxes for a supermarket.

9:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's "Nijiya" Market.

6:28 PM  
Blogger dwg said...

I don't want sweet-talk. I want my damned shrimp-head. When I order a sweet shrimp, I pretty much expect both halves of it.

For me, part of the beauty of omakase becoming available at lots of places is that I learn something about the food--they serve me things I don't order, and tell me what I'm getting, and sometimes it's a fish I've never had and sometimes it's one I've had but it's different than i've had it, but I almost always leave with some new information about raw sealife. (I am not willing to count as new information that it can be set atop a scalding riceball.) Hell, even the chef at your spot in Tsukiji mumbled the name of the fishes you were served.

My view: if you make omakase an option at lunchtime, you must know that most people who opt in will expect a little more of your time than the lunch-specialers. If that's not part of your game-plan, save omakase for dinner.

6:46 PM  
Anonymous c said...

mealcentric says $30 vs the typical $10 fare ought to get you 3x the attention. A good point there.

But if it's a $30 lunch omakase vs a typical $100 dinner omakase, does that mean dwg rightly got 1/3x the attention? Sounds reasonable to me.

Logic aside, I think chefs prefer to maintain a standoff-ish attitude at lunch because they respect that most people are in a rush and are in no mood for chitchat. Personally, the last thing I want to do is stew over my shrimp head when there are still unanswered emails in the inbox.

9:25 AM  

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