Fresh Fish Phoenix
30 N. First St.
I have never before seen fish batter piped into a lattice, deep-fried, and cut into ribbons, so that strips like a doll-house fence could be fashioned into fanciful structures and woven around glistening mounds of bright red tuna, dressed with an avocado purée tossed with sweet white nuts. I have never before seen strips of red clam glazed with an earthy soy marinade, and finished with a sweet spoon of kiwi purée. I have never seen mochi, little rice-flour-noodle-wrapped cakes, made with green tea ice cream, presented in packages made of pliant tropical leaves, tied with ribbons, tied like gifts for a princess, served in a bowl of orchids. And I had certainly never seen any of this in Minneapolis. But I have seen it now, because I have been dining at Origami.
At Origami? The old Origami, the Origami you gave up on three years ago, and then ended up back at, against your better judgment, and gave up on again, and then ended up back at, because your sister made reservations from out of town, and you vowed that that was it, no more middle-of-the-pack, noncompetitive sushi for you? Yes, that Origami. Same place, same owner, different chefs, different standards--quelle differénce!
The chefs in charge now, A-san, Hidé, and Jun, have all been at Origami for years under the direction of other head chefs. When the last head chef left last year, the dining room was emptier than it had ever been in the restaurant's 13-year history, because of our newly competitive sushi environment. After being practically the only game in town, in the last five years Origami has been joined by Fuji-Ya, Sushi Sawatdee (now Koyi Sushi), Tango Sushi, the sushi side at Café Della Vita (now Martini Blu), a bunch of neighborhood and suburban spots, and every single upscale grocery store in town. And, most threateningly, Nami, located critically halfway between Origami and all the people in the office towers.
Yet, instead of whining a lot and dying on the vine, owner Kiminobu Ichikawa boldly rethought the place and reinvigorated it through three key steps. (Ichikawa is Ichi to some, Ichi-san to others, and was the former head chef at Saji-Ya, back before time began.) First, he allowed his talented chefs to rise up and reach their potential. Second, he re-engineered the main menu so it includes things that aren't on every single other menu in town. And third, to up the stakes for the string of loyal regulars who have kept the place going, he invested even more in ingredients, like aji (jack mackerel served fresh, unlike most mackerels which are served pickled), bai-gai (like escargot), ankimo (a monkfish liver pâté), and much more.
In addition, the no-reservations policy was dropped. You can now reserve tables for any size party during the week, for parties of more than five on the weekends, and can even call ahead for the sushi bar--if you're a regular. Then, just last month, a new wine list and a new menu debuted, and the transformation is now complete. I go into so much detail because it seems like a valuable example to contemplate, because I know there are other local standbys that are suffering from new competition and old perceptions: You can change, people will notice.
That said, stating what's best on Origami's new standard menu would be difficult. But a few things really stand out, like the hotate katagai ($9.25). These are four scallops, touched with miso, finished with sake and butter, and served in decorative scallop shells with a tangle of shiitake and enoki mushrooms. It's the most evanescent, buttery, earthy dish you can imagine, combining everything you like about black truffle oil with the essence of a salty sea. The saba shioyaki ($6.25) is half a mackerel, about eight inches long, salted, and seared until it's got a hard crust as brown as an old terra-cotta pot. Pierce the crust with your fork and you find meltingly tender white flesh with a hint of smoke from the charring. If mackerel to you means stuff that's like herring, this will change your mind forever.
A few vegetable items stood out: The chingensai ($5.95) is a large bowl of baby bok choy sautéed in garlic with oyster sauce and sake. The sauce lightly cloaks the bright leaves, creating a savory foil to the bright and iron-y qualities of the greens. Eggplant ($6.50) when I tried it was a silky bowl of sautéed purple slices in garlic, ginger, and tobanja, a spicy fermented bean sauce. It just melted in the mouth.
The wine list, designed by manager Christopher Barnes, raises the bar for local sushi spots as well. It's global in origin, and while a little pricey, is a model of experimental thoughtfulness, offering a wide number of varietals which have all been chosen to complement the oceanic tastes of sushi. For example, the Marcel Martin Vouvray ($7.25/$29) goes well with those oyster-sauced greens and with the saba shioyaki.
Sushi, as served at the tables, is far above par. Unagi, the freshwater eel that's become ubiquitous in metro grocery take-outs, was a revelation: Most eel you see comes shrink-wrapped with that cloying, heavy sauce already on it, but here they make their own sauce and prepare the eel differently, and the result is that Origami's eel is so white, so light, and subtle that it's as unlike what you're used to as cotton candy is unlike a sugar cube.
It is at the sushi bar, ordering the omakase, though, that the heavens really start to crack open and show you the pure light. Omakase (pronounced oh-meh-kah-seh) is literally chef's choice--it's when you give the sushi chef carte blanche. Manager Barnes says that omakase meals can be done for $30 to $50 a head, or even more if you called ahead and they had time to do some advance planning.
It was during a $45 omakase feast-of-dreams that I got that dish with the fish-batter lattice, which astonished me on every level. It was so beautiful to behold, so luxurious to eat. I also had another six courses, which included such rarities as sliced sea cucumber on a bowl of grated white radish, a combination which plays with the most striking textures, both gelatinous and grainy, and contrasts that with the sweet mineral of the sea cucumber and pinprick taste of the radish. Asparagus was sautéed, piled into a little lean-to, and presented with a cascade of fried clam bellies, their light exteriors and livery middles a joy in every way.
There were the things I mentioned above, there was sashimi, there was sushi, and finally there was coconut ice cream pressed into a mold that looked like a coconut shell, and little chocolate-dipped cookie sticks, and orchid petals, and those mochi, which in this instance were like Japanese bonbons, and as cute as buttons, if buttons were made of ice cream and presented in a bowl of orchid petals. Have I ever been happier at a meal in the Twin Cities? I don't think so; it was one for the record books.
However, I also think it's something they'll only unleash for you on, say, your third visit, when it becomes apparent that a bowl of sea cucumber isn't going to send you screaming out the door. I've given this an insane amount of thought, and have concluded that I can't say I blame them. I'm thinking of it as the "how are you" test: There's an answer you'll give to that question to a stranger at a party, and an answer you'll give to a friend, and it's just prudent human nature to act that way.
Unless, of course, you're a celebrity. Popular icons from Elvis Costello to Tony Hawk to Al Roker to Mudvayne have all made Origami a regular stop when they're in town, and I'm guessing it's because the restaurant pulls out all the stops for them. On the other hand, when you're dealing with those sorts of celebrities, you have a pretty high certainty that they've eaten out in Japan, a lot.
So will you, you Kris Olson of the Bloomington-area Olsons, will you see an ice cream mochi, if you go to Origami?
Not right away, because certain things, like the mochi, are given out only as sushi-bar treats for the regulars, and when I quizzed restaurant manager Barnes about how many regulars there really are, he guessed about 15 or 20 core units, either individuals known for bringing guests, or pairs, be they friends or couples. Those core customers tend to come in from twice a week to twice a month, and you could easily be one of them if you have the cash and put in the time. Otherwise, you will spend the rest of your life quite secure in the awful knowledge which I--but wait!
Perhaps you are not really strong enough to follow this review to its true conclusion? Perhaps sometimes knowledge can be as awful as it is exhilarating?
Because true love may not alter when it alteration finds, but true lives do alter quite a bit when they good sushi find. And Visa bills alter even worse.
Well, you're in for it now. Since you've followed this story all the way to its terrible conclusion I can tell you that yes, sushi lovers, I have discovered and now verified and re-verified your deepest fear: There are 30, or perhaps 50, people in town eating sushi so fabulous that it rewrites all previously understood rules of experience, geography, sourcing, or even Minnesota creativity and potential. And all it takes to join their ranks is a few breaking-the-ice visits, followed by 20 nights a year, and the ability to utter the "open sesame" phrase of the sushi world: omakase.
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