Thursday, April 18, 2002

Chop talk

Posted on Thu, Apr 18, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Some pubs in Ireland keep a rack behind the bar for personalized beer mugs -- sort of an incentive for steady guests and a companionable gesture. Why don't other establishments do that -- personalized chili sauce dispensers at Thai House? Monogrammed bibs at O-Boys?

Nagoya Sushi has the idea, with a rack of labeled chopstick holders by the front door. Owner Jenny Tay Lu says it lets her get closer to frequent visitors and saves a tree or two.

Nagoya the city is dead center in the island of Japan and is a cultural and economic hub. Nagoya the restaurant isn't in the center of anything, tucked away in a MetroWest shopping center. But judging by the rows of chopsticks, it attracts a loyal following. Lu's husband, Danny, can be found behind the sushi bar, along with his brother, Calvin, creating masterpieces from deep-red tuna, paper-thin cucumber, neon-orange fish eggs and translucent yellowtail.

There's a view of the action from the booths and tables in the relatively small place, but give yourself a treat and sit at the bar. Watch Calvin slide his knife across the grain of fatty salmon (let it melt on your tongue), as well as chop pickled mackerel and slice slivers of tender octopus for the chirashi bowl ($16.95). Dobinmushi ($4.95) is seafood soup steamed (mushi) in a little teapot (dobin) and served with a tiny cup. Danny peeked his head over the counter to see if we liked it. And we did.

I adore grilled eel but hadn't tried grilled lobster sushi (ise ebi; $3.75) -- now it's a new favorite. Try the miso eggplant ($4.95), a stubby eggplant-half covered in sweet miso sauce that caramelizes under the grill -- a simple but extraordinary dish. Miso shows up again on tender pan-fried scallops ($14.95), which would have been more exciting if I hadn't had the eggplant, too. Pick one or the other and enjoy.

The owners successfully play with flavor and color combinations. The flamboyant "New York roll" ($8.95) combines pale hamachi (young yellowtail) with tuna, salmon, avocado and flying-fish roe. Tender shrimp peek through baked mango like crustaceans swimming in a sweet ocean for the "mango shrimp" entree ($15.95). There are several beautiful vegetable rolls -- bright-green asparagus, avocado and cucumber ($3.25), or a dark and spicy kimchi ($2.95).

The sushi rice -- a recipe Jenny Lu brought from her former restaurant in Manhattan -- is as tasty a starch as you'll find anywhere. Which means it's about as good as everything else at Nagoya. Go several times, earn your chopsticks.

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