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Sushi Takes a Leap Forward

Joe Rocco

Sit at the sushi bar. That's the advice I generally give in regard to eating raw fish at restaurants, but it is especially true at David Bouley Evolution. For one thing, the main dining room is closed until November, so there really isn't much choice. Those who arrive seeking sushi are escorted across the Étoile lounge, which is still serving food, and through a narrow gap in a golden curtain. To the right: a dark space with blackened shadows of tables and chairs. To the left: a shining jewel box of a sushi bar featuring glittering walls of gold glass hand-painted with glistening swirls of color (the work of French artist Gérard Coltat and his son Clement). Behind the counter stands a masterful Japanese chef. He goes by the name of Mike.

Mike's real moniker is Sandanori Hiraga, and he is the reason you should dine at the sushi bar even when Evolution's main room reopens. Hiraga was born in Iwate, a region in north Japan, and moved to Tokyo when he was 15 years old. The next dozen years brought cooking stints at French, Italian, Chinese, Continental, and Japanese restaurants in this city, but not until he relocated to Vancouver in 1985 did he learn the art of working with rice and raw fish. It was also here that co-workers bestowed him with his snappier sobriquet, which was appropriated from a local video outlet called Crazy Mike's. One might presume Hiraga was a little on the wild side back then.

After Mike's two-year work visa expired, he hit the road, finding employment at various Japanese restaurants for a year in Toronto, three in New York, one in Tampa, and the past 15 in Miami — most of his time spent locally as a chef at Hiro's Yakko-San (in charge of the extensive specials board) and head sushi bar chef at Hiro Japanese Restaurant. He has been with Bouley Evolution since it debuted about a year ago.

There are roughly eight to 10 seafood items available at the sushi bar on any given evening. These might include scallops from Boston; baby bluefin tuna, as well as its toro belly, from Australia; and a number of fish shipped overnight from the renowned Tsukiji market in Tokyo, including shimaaji, a striped jack mackerel rarely served in Miami. Mike pulls his plastic tray of fish from the cooler; selects, say, yellowtail; and sets about slicing it with razor precision. He then molds mildly warmed rice (the tepidity helping to meld it with the flesh) into a row of gracefully arched shapes, presses wasabi into each one, and softly lays the fish on top like blankets over sleeping children. Or with equal nimbleness he will roll the same ingredients into crisp sheets of nori. A mixed platter of sushi or sashimi goes for $45; a combo, with a half-dozen pieces of the former and 15 to 20 slices of the latter, is $10 more.

Although seriously focused when in the midst of preparing food, Mike is an otherwise amiable fellow — not at all the type who would look down upon anyone for ignoring proper sushi-eating etiquette. Just the same, allow me to offer a few tips to aid you in making a good impression on not only Mike, but also other sushi chefs. First, do not place a wad of wasabi in your soy sauce (a minuscule amount is permissible), for this will signal your belief that the fish, perhaps not fresh enough, needs masking. What a slap in the face! When dipping sushi into soy, skim only the fish portion in, and for crying out loud, never let it sit rice-down to sop up the sauce. Sushi should be consumed in one or two bites, it being disrespectful to place food back on the plate once you've taken a mouthful. The less coordinated among you might be relieved to know that chopsticks or fingers are acceptable utensils.

Mike goes out of his way to adhere to traditional sushi technique, but also goes out of tradition's way with innovative cooked fare from the kitchen. It is his skill at creating these dishes, in fact, that distinguishes him from other top sushi chefs around town. At Bouley Evolution you can have the best of both worlds. Here's how: Walk in, grab one of the eight stools, and say "Hey, Mike, can I please try your Japanese tasting menu?" (or omakase). Better: Say "pretty please," because this omakase offering is not mentioned on the menu, and the busier Mike is at the sushi bar, the tougher it gets for him to tackle this special meal. Best: Call in advance and place your request for the tasting menu (allow a week's notice for large groups). It comes to $95 per person, or upward for a more expansive sampling.

Once it is established that you are partaking of the tasting, the chef will ask whether you have any dietary allergies or aversions, and which fish or foods you might possess a particular fondness for. Then he'll mix and match, usually two or three sushi/sashimi with an equal number of warm, cooked selections. The latter entries might contain beef, duck, lobster, or foie gras. Evolution's pantry is amply stocked with enviable goods.

(It is a sign of appreciation to offer a beer to those preparing your sushi. This isn't to say buying the chef a brew will upgrade the dishes he chooses for you, because that's not the way it works. But it can't hurt. Mike likes Stella Artois and also has been known to accept a glass of chilled sake.)

Mike spikes seafood with sprightly additions that kiss, not smooch, the natural flavors. Fanned slices of pearly hamachi sashimi were prudently drizzled with ponzu gelatin and flecked with teeny bits of jalapeño pepper. The Australian bluefin toro, so buttery on the tongue, came lightly brushed with juice from the tart Japanese citrus fruit yuzu. Collops of poached lobster were seeped in a shallow white bowl of truffled broth alongside bok choy and sweet white shimeji mushrooms. Snapper was presented pickled, with chives, grilled scallions, and hot red chili peppers.

Another scintillating treat: pinwheels of cucumber-wrapped salmon with asparagus centers, summery in pastel green and blushed coral hues, brightened further by a pair of peeled green and yellow heirloom tomato wedges that had been marinated in tosasu vinegar (made with rice wine, dashi, and sweet sake). Even the usually staid tofu came dressed to impress. Mike makes the soybean curd on premises, oftentimes lacing it layer-cake style with uni (custardy, potently fish-flavored sea urchin roe), which he counters with an earthy, slightly gelatinous sauce of finely minced fungi.

The lights will soon be turned back on, and the energetic buzz of Evolution's bustling dining room shall again reverberate through the revered hush of the sushi bar. I selfishly prefer the off-season ambiance, when with a little luck it is possible to arrive early and have the counter to myself. Just me, Mike, and assorted gastronomic gems nestled within the luminous jewel box, tucked away behind a curtain in quietude and bliss.


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