April 2, 2005
Jewel Bako Makimono
I've been hearing great things about Jewel Bako for a couple of years now, but since you need a reservation to eat there (hence requiring much advance planning of which I am terrible at), I have never gotten around to trying it out. I did try their oyster bar across the street, Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar, a couple of times, and thought the oysters were great but the cooked dishes didn't really tickle my fancy. So not being blown away by Jack's Luxury Oyster Bar certainly didn't help motivate me to go secure a table at Jewel Bako.
Walking by Jewel Bako's sister restaurant Makimono tonight at around 7:30, I noticed that it was practically empty. Curious, as it was a Friday night. Apparently all the tables were reserved, though only one table was occupied at the time. The sushi bar was free, however, so we grabbed a couple of seats there.
Little did I know that I was about to taste the best sushi I've had in a long time. In fact, I can't remember the last time sushi tasted this good.
That was the good news. The bad news was that we met Jack Lamb, the owner, and he turned out to be quite an ass.
Nevertheless, the sushi at Makimono was so good that despite the owner's poor treatment of customers, I still want to kick myself for not having yet been to Jewel Bako.
From what I understand, Jewel Bako is more traditional and Makimono a little more creative. That's what my friend was told when she asked what the differences were when she tried to make a reservation one time. Usually it's just described as a more "casual" version of Jewel Bako when it's written about in the media. In any case, while the sushi here is creative, it's not fusion like Nobu or radical new-style like Gari. They take a more nuanced and Japanese approach to non-tradional sushi-making. I hesistate to even call it "non-traditional" as their approach is so subtle that it seemed traditional. And, like I already gushed, the best sushi I've had in a long, long time.
The meal started off simple enough. We had the White Miso with Suzuki Dumpling ($4). The "suzuki dumpling" wasn't a dumpling at all, but more like a fish ball. And the miso soup? Well, despite it being a white miso soup, I didn't taste a bit of difference from your average corner Japanese restaurant miso soup. [As an aside, I love the miso soup at Hasaki. It's dark and full of flavor, just wonderful.]
The Japanese "Salade Niçoise" ($12) has been mentioned in several reviews I've read about the place so we tried that. It's a salad of hijiki seaweed mixed with sea beans, daikon and kishu plum and topped with 4 slices of tuna sashimi and 2 halves of one quail egg. I thought the sashimi/egg to salad ratio was waaaay off. It was a huge mound of hijiki and only 4 slices of tuna. When you eat it with the tuna and egg, the salad is really good. But after you finish the tuna and the egg, you still had a huge mound of hijiki. At that point, the dish turned fairly ordinary and, dare I say, even tiresome. They should either give you more sashimi/egg or just reduce the big pile of seaweed.
Next we had the Yakimono ($9), a roasted hamachi kama (yellowtail collar) with kinome miso. As far as hamachi kamas go, this was a fairly good one. The kinome miso gave it a interesting flavor. Though I have to say I still prefer the good ol' salt-crusted version. Sometimes the simplest preparation is the best way.
So far I still had no idea that I was about to enter sushi nirvana. The appetizers had been good, but nothing to write home about. Well, the sushi came and I'm definitely writing home about them.
Eating the sushi tonight, it was almost as if I was tasting them all for the first time. Sushi is frequently referred to as little pieces of art, but they really are here. Sitting at the bar, I saw how meticulously the chef put together each little morsel of edible art. The pieces looked beautiful. These photos taken in yellowish low-light and photoshopped back to a semblence of brightness don't begin to approximate how nice the sushi looked in person. I have rarely seen such care put into sushi making. Each little nigiri piece was topped with a different little dressing to accentuate and bring out the flavors of the beautifully sliced and supremely fresh fish, some flown in from as far away as Tsujiki. The uni ($7 each) had a little bit of finely sliced dry seaweed on top. The yellowtail was lightly seared on top by a blowtorch and topped with a a few finely chopped scallions plus something else. The salmon had a single ikura (salmon roe) and some little something or other. The sushi chef rubbed a tiny dab of a sauce of some type (yuzu? citrus? other?) on top of the scallop and sprinkled some flakes of something on top. And so on and so forth. Each piece was a unique creation. Sorry I can't be more detailed as I didn't take notes. (I'm not that kind of a foodgeek. Not yet, anyway.) None of the "additions" distracted from the fish one bit. They added very subtle hints of flavors that barely registered on the palate yet provided that extra dimension which amplified each piece's taste.
We had the Sushi Jyo ($30) which was a selection of 9 sushi pieces plus half a roll. Even the roll, which was at first glance a run-of-the-mill spicy tuna inside-out roll, was a revelation. I couldn't believe how such a simple roll could show me flavors that I had never tasted before. Even now, as I comtemplate it, I still can't put my finger on what exactly the chef did that made it so amazing. But it was, without a doubt, the best spicy tuna roll I've ever had.
Makimono means rolls in Japanese so it's no surprise that the restaurant has many special rolls on its menu. We tried the Anago (sea eel) with baby asparagus, shitake mushrooms and natural sea salt ($16). Look at how beautiful it is.
And it tasted fantastic.
Unfortunately, while the sushi chef showed me heights of sushi-craft that I have not seen in ages, the manager and owner at the restaurant ruined it all.
So there I was, taking photos of all the food, as usual. I have been doing this everywhere. From little Chinatown stalls to Michelin 3-star restaurants in Europe, I have never had any problems.
Until tonight, that is.
I was blissfully unaware, but in hindsight, I guess I was freaking out the manager that I was taking pictures of all our food. And mind you, I was doing it discreetly. It's not like I was disturbing any guests around us. First of all, there were no guests around us. And second of all, since I didn't use a flash and I was using my tiny digicam, I was definitely not bothering anyone. Well, not bothering anyone except for the manager, so it seemed.
But, to her credit, she held her displeasure back and continued serving us food. Towards the end of the meal, I asked for the menu again. And when I was given a copy, I proceeded to take pictures of it—it's my way of remembering what I just ordered (since I'm a little senile in my old age). And again, I have been doing this at many fine dining establishments all over town (and the world). Next thing I knew, the manager was right behind me, and SNATCHED the menu away from me.
She angrily scolded me: "You can't take pictures of the menu!" And stormed off.
I was dumbfounded.
What? Why? And why couldn't she ask me nicely to please refrain from photographing their menu? And why couldn't I photograph it anyway? Are they afraid of competitors stealing their ideas? Even if I wanted to steal their ideas, couldn't I just write down the menu as well? Plus, their menu is online!!!
I mean I realize photographing the menu is maybe slightly bizzare behavior and I could totally respect whatever rules they might have at their restaurant if the rules were made known to me, I just didn't appreciate the way she yanked the menu out of my hands and yelled at me.
Probably she had been quite alarmed by my photo taking all night and the menu thing just pushed her over the edge.
A few minutes after she reprimended me as if I were a child, the owner, Jack Lamb, came over out of nowhere, apparently having been alerted to my abominable transgressions.
"Hey," he brusquely said. "What are you taking pictures for?" He appeared really annoyed.
At this point, I had no idea who he was. He didn't introduce himself. Just walked up next to me and started asking questions, in a very unfriendly manner.
"Uh, who are you?" we asked.
"I'm the owner of this place," he said, probably taken aback that he was not recognized in his own mini-empire. I mean, everybody knows Jack Lamb, the proprietor of four hot restaurants in-and-around that block, right? (I really didn't recognize him. I knew of him, but not what he looked like.)
"I want to know what's going on." He demanded in a threatening tone.
"Uh, we're just taking photos for ourselves. Is that a problem?"
He started to leave, apparently not wishing to engage in any more conversation with us scoundrels. He mumbled something about not allowing photography as he quickly walked away from us. I guess he was satisfied that his imposing presence had scared us enough to not attempt any more nefarious photography.
I have not been treated this poorly at a restaurant ever. Even if I were doing something actually bad, like disturbing the other patrons with loud talking or other disruptive behaviors, they still should discreetly and politely ask me to stop first. Not run over and yell at me and make me feel like a misbehaving degenerate.
And it's surprising, too. At Jack's Oyster Bar, the staff there was extremely professional and courteous. And I've read that Jack Lamb is a gracious host. Well, I guess he is, until you piss him off with despicable deeds like photographing the food you're paying for.
The manager shoved us the check, which we had not yet asked for. She didn't ask if we wanted anything else. Didn't refill our water or offer hot tea (as is traditional in a sushi restaurant). She clearly wanted us to leave.
Later, we flagged her down to let her know that we didn't appreciate the way she handled the situation. She started dressing us down again, saying how we were in the wrong for photographing the food and insinuating that we had no right to feel upset since we didn't have the courtesy to asked for permissions first. She claimed Jack Lamb doesn't even allow journalists to take pictures (?!) and something about him not wanting people to talk about the restaurant online. Sounds like he has some issues with blogs... Been badly spurned by some blogger previously, perhaps? Poor man. In any case, he doesn't like negative talk about his place online, the manager said. Which is ironic because their food is absolutely amazing. I had nothing negative to say about it until they started making me feel like a detestable miscreant.
We left a lousy tip and got the hell out of there.
I'm probably banned, but you know what? I still highly recommend the place. It really was that good. Skip the appetizers and go straight for the rolls and sushi and you'll have an amazing meal. Jack Lamb might be an insecure asshole, but the sushi chef he hired is an absolute genius.
Just make sure you don't take any pictures when you go.
Jewel Bako Makimono, 101 Second Avenue (near 6th Street), 212-253-7848
Food & Drink