The Raw and the Cooked
30 N. First St., Mpls.; 333-8430
Standing in the new second-story expansion of Origami, his restaurant that helps anchor pedestrians to the warehouse district, Kiminobu Ichikawa--"Ichi" to his friends--explained his Zen rock garden to me. It's a small patch of sand and rocks built into a window alcove, and Ichi tells me, "It's relaxing, calm work to soothe your mind. But nobody sees it but me. Every day people put their cigarette butts in it, they leave their drinks here, they sit in it." And no one takes advantage of the peace to be had by carefully raking the sand into patterns. "Except me!" says Ichi, the self-described owner, chef, sushi chef, waiter, busboy, and dishwasher, who seizes on the idea with delight. "I come up here," he says, leaning over the sand and smoothing its surface. "Come customers," he intones in a funny, singsong voice. "Come to my restaurant. Welcome, welcome." He bows, with his back to the river, and all of downtown and the cities west fall into his embrace.
Ichi talks fast and moves quickly, and this scene takes--tops--10 seconds before he's on to explaining the dual meaning of his new neon signs. But it seems like a perfect portrait of the man: playful, friendly, easily delighted, but also driven, using every available second to attend to details and get things accomplished. By the time we turn away the Zen garden is neat as a pin, and it's likely that some of Origami's loyal patrons--and they are fiercely loyal--have felt that nudge of welcoming energy zooming out over the streets, and are changing their plans to include a stop at Ichi's convivial spot.
The neon signs, by the way, depict a martini glass and a sake bottle, the glass symbolizing western traditions, the bottle representing Japanese tastes, and Ichi explains that Origami is designed to be the space where they meet and meld. The same theme is played out in the art upstairs. There are collages using Japanese rice papers and bits of English text or cutouts from American books, and the menu is chock-a-block with items embodying the dynamic between the two cultures, like the Encounter ($7.95), a large roll of salmon, scallops, avocado, pickled ginger, and burdock deep fried in Origami's light tempura batter. Presented on a beautiful deep-blue, asymmetrical Japanese plate, this appetizer is above all exquisite, its cross-sections of roll elegant and colorful. It looks like a perfectly balanced miniature sculpture, markedly different than the dumped-out slabs-of-agriculture most Americans are familiar with. At the same time the flavors are inviting and unthreatening: creamy cooked salmon and sweet cooked scallops.
From the sushi menu, which Origami is most famous for, popular cooked options like the California roll ($5.00 for cooked king crab legs, avocado, and cucumber garnished with salty smelt roe) function almost as training wheels for Americans who are just getting comfortable with sushi. There are other items that you'd never find on a sushi menu in Japan, like the wonderful Spider roll ($8.75), a section of soft-shelled crab deep fried and wrapped in with cucumber, kaiware (spicy watercress-like daikon radish sprouts), and burdock. It surpasses mere beginner's food, fusing the best of American cuisine--say one of Maryland's renowned deep-fried crab-on-white-bread sandwiches--with careful, elegant Japanese style. Other delicious untraditional offerings from the sushi bar include the Dynamite roll ($5.50), chopped yellowtail in a garlic chili sauce, and the Spicy Tuna roll ($5.50), chopped tuna with chili oil, wasabi-touched Japanese mayonnaise, burdock, cucumber, and avocado.
Origami's fame--the walls are full of signatures by Keanu, Uma, Sinbad, et al.--rests only partially on its exotic combinations. Scrupulously fresh fish is also responsible, procured from sushi brokers who fly it directly into Minneapolis, where it is personally picked up and inspected by Ichi or his sushi chef. One glimpse at the exquisitely translucent ama ebi (raw sweet shrimp, $4.95) or pinkly quivering uni (sea urchin, $4.95) is enough to prove you don't have to live on the ocean to taste its perfection. Every time I've been to Origami the fish has been so fresh it's positively vibrant. For my money, though, the most alluring aspect of Origami is the absolute friendliness of the place: To sit at the sushi bar is to engage in a lively dialogue about food, as regulars banter with the chefs, challenging them to create original dishes with favorite items, and the chefs in turn present experiments free-of-charge to eager tasters, while strangers engage in arguments about the global state of sushi.
Ichi nurtures this exciting environment by taking his chefs on eating tours through New York and Los Angeles (which compels them to keep their recipes fresh and their ideas flexible), but also by challenging and expecting more from his customers. For example, he now offers a dozen premium sakes from nearly every prefecture in Japan. This allows patrons to become familiar with the infinite variety of tastes available in rice wines--just as with grape wine, the sweetness, body, and flavor differ with the variety of rice used, the climate, soil, and water the rice was grown in, and the different ways the sake is manufactured. For the record, Ichi says his favorite sake is the Onigoroshi ($5.75), a smooth, full wine, and so far the Harushika ($4.95) is mine--it's served chilled and is dry and delicate, finishing with a slight sweetness, like a scent of rice pudding. Cold sake is served in the Japanese fashion, in a small glass tumbler filled until overflowing into a pretty glass coaster; once you've emptied your glass enough, you pour the overflow from the coaster back in. It's a thoroughly festive and unpretentious way to have a drink. In fact, a brimming glass next to a Caterpillar roll ($8.75)--a silly, playful, delicious thing comprised of cooked, smoky freshwater eel wrapped in rice and covered with thin slices of avocado, arranged along the plate like a crawling caterpillar, with sprigs of kaiware sprouting from the head-end like antennae--is the essence of sophisticated cross-cultural fun.
Ichi says his next push will be to offer Asian-European fusion cooking in the second-floor restaurant, since he's been inspired by restaurants like New York's Vong (French-Thai) and Nobu (Nouvelle-Japanese) and California's ObaChine (Pan-Asian-Californian). I can hardly wait, since this is the sort of food that needs, above all, wit, imagination, and a clear vision, which Ichi has in spades. After he had smoothed out his Zen garden and switched on his neon signs, he turned away from the window and, with a wry grin, said, "Most of all I'm lucky. Very very lucky. Lucky that Minnesotans started eating raw fish."
THAT DEMON LIQUOR: Take a moment this Labor Day to commemorate the 128th anniversary of the founding of the Prohibition Party, September 1, 1869. It was the party that brought us bathtub gin, speakeasies, flappers, organized crime, and the demise of nearly every regional brewery--but hey you lousy G-men, guess who's laughing now.
YOU SAY TOMATO, I SAY LOVE APPLE:
I almost cut my vacation short to attend BRAVO's Tomato Dinner, but I didn't, and now I'll live a life threaded with despair, forever marred with the shadow of what could have been. Unless, of course, I roll up my sleeves and make the tomato salad BRAVO chef Andrew Zimmern recommends as the crowning moment to summer's sun-drenched bounty--so everyone, make haste! To the garden, to the garden!
BRAVO's Tuscan Tomato and Bread Salad
(serves 6 to 8)
- 3 cups peeled and diced ripe summer tomatoes, liquids included
- 3 roasted red peppers, peeled, seeded, cored, and diced
- 3 cups toasted or grilled bread cubes at 1/2 inch square. Use a great baguette or Italian loaf.
- 1/2 cup pulled basil leaves
- 1/4 cup shaved fresh garlic
- 3 tbls. minced anchovy
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (Andrew recommends Falchini or Melini; available at Cook's of Crocus Hill)
- 1/4 cup sherry wine vinegar
- Salt and pepper to taste
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Let rest for 10 minutes. Toss and serve immediately. Garnish with fresh pulled herbs and drizzles of olive oil.
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