Who New, Doraku
If you look very hard high up on the ceiling of Doraku, a sophisticated spot with minimalist mode-of-the-moment décor (relying largely on the natural elegance of contrasting polished woods), like a Terence Conran-type take on a traditional Japanese teahouse, you will notice that the subdued mesh-muted lights appear to be mounted on ... a huge polka-dotted octopus tentacle? Or perhaps it's a giant jellyfish or moray eel?
What we do know about the now-recessed and tastefully reclusive Day-Glo monster is that it is one of just two-and-a-half elements left over from the restaurant's original identity as circuslike conveyor-belt Japanese fast-food snackery Sushi Doraku. The conveyor belt is also left over, now an upscale moving display platform for a collection of Japanese teapots and other pottery artifacts. Also, of course, half of the original's name remains. But don't be confused: Sushi Doraku may have been more casual culinary playground than culinary temple, but Doraku -- while still run by the theme restaurant-specialist Benihana group -- has transcended gimmickry, and Doraku's food, while similarly emphasizing sushi and both raw and cooked small plates over full entrées, is serious.
At Doraku virtually every plate looks like it was designed by a top food stylist, but even so salmon tartare was an exceptionally beautiful presentation, with the minced fresh Alaskan salmon in a rounded ice creamlike scoop topped, like a discreet sundae, with seaweed and gray caviar, and long strips of chive, accompanied by a citrus/salt cylinder. An unusual just-hot-enough jalapeño dressing made the structure taste as good as it looked.
Snapper ceviche (thin-sliced fresh fish strips mixed with onion and cucumber) was another visual knockout, cleverly -- since its sauce was a grapefruit/lemon concoction -- served in half a grapefruit shell. Actually the so-called sauce was more of a thin, slightly over-tart marinade, like nuevo ceviche, sauced right before serving. But it tasted like the long-marinated citrus-"cooked" fish ceviche.
Crispy calamari salad was outstanding, good enough to order at every future visit to Doraku. The panko-breaded and lightly fried morsels of tender calamari came atop a generous heap of baby mesclun greens mixed with fresh pepper strips and juicy, sweet mango (the fruit may not initially sound like the ideal complement to squid, but it knocks marinara sauce right outta the water), dressed with an absolutely lovely, nutty peanut potion.
Ahi poke was a mix of impeccably fresh diced ahi tuna and sea kelp, marinated in a sauce that was pleasantly peppery but too salty. The kelp sheets were an interesting change in our wakamed-out world but, though deceptively delicate-looking, were tough as shoe leather, truly unchewable. I've no idea if kelp's always like that, or this was just a particularly tough batch.
We tried out Doraku's vegetable tempura, expecting the usual mix of vegetables -- zucchini, onion, eggplant, carrot, sweet potato, maybe a mushroom. All these were present in the assortment, but, to our delight, there was also a crisp-coated shiso leaf, a bundle of battered thin noodles that visually resembled a dried flower bouquet, and a patty of kakiage (a relatively labor-intensive type of tempura in which an assortment of shredded vegetables is embedded in a lacy, serving spoon-sized pancake). The thin batter adhered beautifully, and the dipping sauce was also more flavorful, less one-dimensionally fishy than usual Japanese stuff.
A bit more complexity would have enhanced yakimatsu, a mushroom mix (shiitakes, slender white enokis, and regular old button mushrooms, when I tried the dish) sautéed with bell peppers and onions that could have benefited from a little mirin, as well as some thickening reduction, to its chili-ponzu sauce. Still it was a pleasant light bite.
Agedashi tofu was an elegant interpretation of "tofu steak." The huge square of silky fresh bean curd came coated in a crisp, delicate shell, with a lovely rich ginger sauce and garnished with scallion, and, amazingly, shredded fresh wasabi. The Japanese horseradish root is hard to grow hence hard to find, and very expensive; I've eaten at a joint just blocks from Doraku that charged ten bucks for a fingernail-sized serving. So to find it as an unexpected throw-in was Christmas in July.
The same wonderful wasabi garnished the only disappointing dish I tried, a festively parasol-festooned "martini" of soy sauce-garnished raw ahi tuna, daikon, scallions ... and shredded Japanese mountain potato. Let's face it: Japanese people apparently adore mountain potato, but for most of the rest of the world it's an acquired taste, which I have repeatedly tried to acquire and failed. You know how slimy okra gets on the outside when you overcook it? Imagine blending one small shredded regular, but raw, Yukon Gold potato with the scraped slime from 100 pieces of cooked-to-death okra ... you get the picture. The tuna was terrific, after wiping it off with a napkin.
Since powerful parent corporation Benihana flies fresh fish in daily, making Doraku's sushi/sashimi selection somewhat larger than usual, it was annoying that toro (fat blue-fin belly tuna) was on the menu but not available. Neither was uni (sea urchin). But the sushi I tried was excellent, firm-textured and clean-tasting. Especially tasty were several specialty makis: the masago-topped Doraku California Roll, with real snow crab substituted for fake "crab" surimi; the refreshing Popeye Roll, crisp spicy spinach and sliced black olives with lemon sauce; and Bahamian Conch Roll, with sliced cucumber and tomato, blistering jalapeño, a touch of subtle creamy curry sauce, and sweet eel sauce on the side for dipping.
Finally, the reincarnated restaurant now has extremely serious sake, so serious that Doraku's menu devotes as much space to explaining sake history and the differences between its four main varieties as many restaurants do to their food selections. So although the seventeen-sake list does have one served-hot plebian, this is really the place to do as Japanese sake gourmets do and drink something higher-quality, served cold to bring out all nuances. For those interested in comparative taste-testing there are four formidable "tasting menus" of four sakes each. But even those who, like me, order the smallest, most inexpensive masu will be confronted with a full pottery cup of sake surrounded by a square bamboo box also filled to the brim with sake -- big bang for the bucks. And if that's getting too serious for some, there's also a list of foofoo sake cocktails, like the chocolate cake saketini, that explain why the former Sushi Doraku kept the second half of its name -- the half that translates as "joy of."
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