Friday, December 19, 2008

Oh, How I've Missed You

My dearest Hagi.

That's right. I finally made it back.

Once our pitcher of Sapporo had arrived safely, my friend and I took turns shouting suggestions at one another.

"Calf liver sashimi?" I asked.

"I had it earlier this week," she told me. "It's disgusting."

Hagi is subterranean, inviting, low-ceilinged, bamboo-heavy, and warm. The service is rushed and you can never get much of an answer from the waitstaff. And no, they don't bring you water unless you ask for it. But who cares? The food is so incredibly good and cheap that it would be hard to leave disappointed.

Our neighbors ordered the liver sashimi. It did look kind of disgusting.

As for us, we started with a pickled radish special (3 bucks--beat that!), yellowtail sashimi (much better than Astoria version I had earlier in the week), and beef short ribs. The short ribs are not what I had expected. For one, they aren't slow-cooked. They arrive, seven or so to a plate, as small cuts of steak--in flavor, closely resembling a rib eye--on the bone. You have to pick them up and chew the meat, which is rich and flavorful and accented by the soy sauce and wasabi that comes on the side.

Round two: vegetable tempura, fermented soybean wrapped in fried tofu, and fried chicken. The vegetables were, specifically, shitake mushrooms, long thick spears of asparagus, and onion that reminded me of the famous Outback bloomin' onion. In a good way. Vegetable tempura might seem a bit pedestrian, but this version was balanced and tasty. For dipping, ponzu with fresh minced ginger.

The fermented soybean wasn't my favorite, possibly because it came swathed in bonito flakes, which kind of freak me out. First of all, I don't like the fact that the flakes move as if they're alive when they hit something hot; it's gross. Second of all, bonito comes from the shaving of petrified skipjack tuna over a mandoline. The fish, when fermented, is black and rock hard, kind of like amber. I can get past it in dashi, the famous Japanese broth for which bonito is also used. But thinking about old fish shavings on top of my old soy beans is a little too much to handle. I'm just saying.

I wasn't in a noodle mood, which was why I passed up my favorite Hagi dish, the udon hot pot. The fried chicken was a fine replacement. In this particular situation, Japan has the deep south beat. These are glorified white and dark meat chicken nuggets, almost the size of a fist. They are crunchy, gingery, umami-tastic.

Fearful Americans, be not afraid: Hagi provides full color photographs of most of their dishes, so you know exactly what chicken gizzards on garlic sprouts, or octopus balls, or spaghetti with cod roe and ketchup (my friend, who is half-Japanese, swears this is a traditional Japanese dish) look like before you order.

Those pictures will also help you identify the wildly popular--and incredibly potent, at 19 percent alcohol--sake-in-a-can, which should come at the end of every superior dining experience.

152 W. 49th Street
New York, NY 10019

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