A new Japanese restaurant Uptown bring to mind the days when sushi was exotic and maybe even a little mysterious.
When I was first learning about food, the general understanding about sushi was that this was a subtle and precise cuisine, something crafted with artfulness by chefs and offered like treasures to an appreciative clientele. By comparison, today we can pick up boxes of sushi from the supermarket take-out counter, right next to the chocolate muffins and shrink-wrapped muffulettas.
Even at Japanese restaurants, regulars can usually order their favorite rolls without so much as consulting the chef or even looking over the menu. Familiarity, after all, is one function of comfort food.
Visit the new Uptown restaurant Chiba, however, and you’ll want to give that menu a closer look. Chiba is on Oak Street, next to the Maple Leaf Bar. It’s new and thoroughly contemporary. Yet in its own way the food still manages to take us back to a time when Japanese food seemed exotic and maybe even a little mysterious.
Here, you might find glistening salmon slices, twisted into shapes like chess pieces, each wrapped around a single fat, tart blackberry and pearly red bits of tobiko caviar. At this sushi bar, it’s common to find fruit being used as if it were an especially sweet fish. Another example is the satsuma strawberry roll, a true showstopper. And while I’d rarely recommend steak at a Japanese restaurant, this New York strip served here is a welcome exception. Sliced as thin as sashimi, it proved nearly as tender, its scarlet depths streaked with a marinade of mirin rice wine and the warm spices of Cajun-style tasso ham underneath it.
Chiba was opened in March by first-time restaurateur Keith Dusko, who logged many years in New York City’s Japanese restaurant scene and has brought that experience to bear here. Chiba’s overall approach pries away predictability, and in addition to its creative successes Chiba keeps an exceptionally well-stocked sushi bar. The tuna, for instance, starts off with beautiful maguro the color of a syrah wine and then ranges up through a few rungs to otoro, the fattiest -- and most expensive – cut of tuna, which arrives the color of a rosé.
Chiba also makes a specialty of live shellfish, most reliably scallops and clams. I know that seeing something on a menu described as “live” might freak some people out. But in this case it doesn’t mean you’ll find yourself dispatching some creature at the table. Instead it indicates that the seafood arrived at the restaurant live and in shell, ready to be done in by the sushi knife just after you order it (it’s the same idea behind eating really fresh raw oysters – something New Orleans is already pretty familiar with).
A good raw scallop should be full of sweet, marine flavor; Chiba’s live scallop has that but also a floral silkiness. The acidic bounce from a lemon garnish practically made the scallop flesh jump, and when chased with some cool, melon-scented sake, it was an unforgettable taste.
Now that we can get a sushi lunch from the grocery store and have sashimi delivered like pizza, it’s nice to find a restaurant like Chiba that shakes things up again.
8312 Oak St., New Orleans, 504-826-9119; www.chiba-nola.com