Shortly after I had returned from a winter vacation in California to escape the bitter cold and general malaise of the season, I began to feel the craving again for good sushi. If I had the means, I would have hopped back on a plane to eat at Take Sushi again, which was quite possible the best sushi I have ever had out of anywhere I had been previously, including near the Tokyo fish market in Japan.
Lacking the air miles and the time to travel, I went over the list of places I had been in recent months with my girlfriend. Now, I am not sure if you know exactly how much of a cultural wasteland Minnesota can feel like to somebody who has been out of its cold confines, but let me assure you that the environment is typically no good for sushi bars.
The list included Origami, Kikugawa, Kabuki, Sajiya, Fujiiya, and even that poor excuse for a sushi bar within Ichiban. Origami is good, but you might as well take a second mortgage out on your house or plan on writing a novel to be able to afford it and stomach the wait before your food arrives to make the experience bearable. I was feeling starved and my girlfriend who was coming along started to look annoyed, so began to reach out for other options.
I decided to give in to the rumors and try a little sushi bar called, "Yumi's Sushi Bar," in Excelsior, a little lake town way out on the very edge of the metro area on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. I am not sure how familiar you are with the cultural geography of Minnesota, but to say there is a sushi bar out in the middle of Excelsior would be just as large of a culture shock as saying there is a Walmart in the middle of The Village. Little did I know that this particular sushi bar in the middle of nowhere in particular was going to make all of the other aforementioned sushi bar's look like Roland McDonald does sushi.
My girlfriend and I pointed the car west from Minneapolis and did not stop until we hit Excelsior and Lake Minnetonka. After forty minutes of travel, there stood before us the little sushi bar nestled in what looked like a 1920s brick version of a strip-mall, the entry way one door from, "The Dock Movie Theater." We cautiously entered on that chilly Monday night and took a seat at the bar.
We ordered green tea and gyoza to begin with and began ordering various things with the sushi chef. The gyoza were awesome. Deep fried crispy pockets of pure joy. I wanted more, but we resisted the temptation and moved on to sushi.
The sushi chef before us did not seem to be quite Japanese even though he had a thick Asian accent, nonetheless we found out he made awesome sushi. To get good fish on a Monday night at eight o'clock is a wonder in itself, but to have it be made into wonderful is a completely other matter. Then came the tamago.
Tamago by many sushi connoisseurs' opinions is the absolute measure of the quality of a sushi bar. Many serious sushi patrons will sample tamago first and if they do not like it, leave the restaurant! There was no danger of that as the tamago at Yumi's was simply the best I had ever had. The fine eggy custard looked gorgeous; it had a perfect color, a beautiful spiral pattern and smooth consistency: but it tasted even better. It was firm, slightly sweet, and had an awesome light flavor that begged a second order.
I asked to the sushi chef, "who made this?" The chef standing next to our chef said, "K. did, but it is my recipe." K., or as we later found out, Jeong Kyung Man, makes awesome tamago.
"My name is Steve," said the other chef; and from these simple introductory words, we entered into a long dialog about sushi, about philosophy, and about life that stretched into the evening and involved many other patrons at the bar. Just before close, music came on the restaurant's P.A. system. Asinayo, a Korean pop song. It was immediately clear to my girlfriend and I that everybody who was Asian on the staff on this restaurant was Korean.
My girlfriend, being a Korean herself, immediately formed a bond with K. and the owner, Yumi, who came over when she heard another person speaking Korean in her restaurant. Yumi offered us a 10% discount if we can find a, "pretty Korean girl like you for Kyung Man." We still have to make good on that offer.
Steve, on the other hand, was half Korean and knew only how to speak, "the dirty words Mother called me growing up." He, even more so than Jeong Kyung Man, is a true genius. It took us another trip back to the sushi bar to discover that.
Our second trip back surpassed our every expectation. It was a Saturday and Yumi's was packed. We waited for a seat at the bar and got Steve for a chef. After ordering some Tamago, I asked him what was good. He did not disappoint.
At the end of our third order, he asked if we would like anything more. My girlfriend and I both agreed that some more of his fantastic unagi nigiri-sushi would be wonderful. He asked us permission to make us something, "special," instead. We did not hesitate to offer our approval.
We were presented with a beautiful caterpillar roll, made from thinly sliced avocado surrounding a core of rice and unagi, the maki arranged on the plate to form a long creature complete with little daikon feelers on the head piece. It was divine.
As we were patting our lips and paying the bill, he hit us with hard news. He would soon be leaving the sushi business. You see, he is getting married and he wants to devote his full time to raising his family. We were saddened for our stomaches, but happy for him: Steve was a man we now had great respect for.
With this new information, we ate at Yumi's as much as we could. Every time it proved to be fantastic. We became good friends with everyone in the restaurant, and even invited the chefs along to go sing with us at a Korean Singing Room (Karoke).
The last time we ate at Yumi's, when we walked through the now familiar entry we saw a strange third sushi chef behind the bar serving sushi. The only chairs available on that busy Saturday night was were in front of him, so we took them and sat down.
After some green tea and Gyoza, we found out that he was a candidate to replace Steve. His sushi was not very good. It was very poorly constructed. You never quite realize how much the construction of sushi can affect its taste given the same ingredients.
We ordered soup as a delay tactic and waited for seats in front of Steve to open up. While we were waiting, Jeong Kyung Man noticed us waiting and served us some decoratively sliced tamago with some daikon garnish. That sort of treatment can make one feel so welcome and only serves to make the food that much more wonderful. I bought beers for the chefs.
When we sat down in front of Steve, he greeted us warmly and asked us what we would like. We asked him if we could have some unagi. He looked around the small thirty two seat restaurant and noticed that people for the most part were wrapping up their meals and said, "I tell you what, I will make you guys something special."
While he prepared, "something special," we further discussed children, jobs, and more philosophy. He told us how much he was looking forward to being his own man as an electrician. Forty minutes later he presented us with the most beautiful sushi, the most beautiful food, I have ever in my life gazed upon.
On the plate before us, we sat slack-jawed staring at the sushi-dragon in wide-eyed bewilderment as it blew a plume of crab-meat smoke at us. The head was constructed out of a half of an avocado, garnished with flowing daikon radish hair, and topped with a crest of deep purple ume plum-paste. Attached to the head was a long body made out of maki made from unagi and tuna wrapped in nori and sushi rice garnished with sesame seeds. At the end of the dragon there was a great fan-tail made from more daikon. The whole creature set against great mountains of shredded carrots and daikon, its body floating upon a pool of unagi sauce.
We could not bring ourselves to eat the creature, and in our debate to see who would have the honor and the dark duty of tasting the first morsel, we were interrupted by a couple we did not even notice sit down. The sushi's beauty was so great, it had been able to mute what we were soon to discover to be a couple of the rudest and most annoying people we had ever had the misfortune to meet.
"Oh Steve! We want one of those too!!" the man said as he allowed his finger, and the arm attached, to reach across the table and get dangerously close to the dragon.
The man and the woman where both within their upper-middle ages. He had tight tanned leather for skin, dazzling white teeth, and tight silver curls for hair. She, was equally as manufactured but at least she was quiet.
"No, I am sorry," Steve said, "but this is something I had just made special for my friends."
"But aren't we your friends too?" the man whined in return, relentless.
Steve, to his credit, stuck to his guns. He told them he would make something else special for them, and ordered a whole soft-shell crab to be fried from the hot-chef he called smiley. Later, he presented them the special stuffed crab sushi of his that I would have been honored to receive. The annoying people, for the moment, seemed satisfied.
My girlfriend and I decided in the end to try the dragon at the same time. It was simply beyond description. Tears come to my eyes when I think about it. We both thanked Steve, sincere in our gratitude.
I suppose it was our display of genuine emotion and satisfaction that peaked the interest of the annoying couple next to us. The silver-back opened his gob and whined, "Steve, the crab thingy was really good," he paused and forced a fake smile, "but we really wanted the dragon." He looked over at us I tried to look away, I swear, but I knew there was no escaping and he whined further, "wasn't it good you guys?"
I looked at Steve, he sighed, and nodded. He made them a dragon. He somehow was able to shave the preparation time to thirty minutes. We talked further as we finished our pot of tea and I bought Steve a beer. I somehow felt indebted. It was a horrible thing that he should be punished for going that extra step for us.
As the annoying people devoured their dragon, Steve informed us that, "tonight might be my last night." We were nothing short of shocked. I stood and asked Steve under my breath, "so, if you ever get back into sushi, where can I find you? How will I know where to look?"
He looked around leaned over the counter and said, "let me
give you my home telephone number and we will talk. That way you can always find me."
Now, the annoying man reached from being, "the guy I would forget later," to becoming, "that annoying man I will carry around with me inside my head for the rest of my life," when he said, in a loud whiney tone, "What Steve, aren't we good enough for your telephone number too?"
Steve wrote his telephone number out for the man, without protest. If it were me, I would have given him fake digits or had him sample some knuckle-sushi. But Steve gave the man his real number. What a selfless guy.
Steve still will pop by Yumi's and make sushi when things get busy. He gets payed by the night now. Rumor has it he is working on opening a sushi bar called Tsunami soon, but as he told me, "I still want to study to be an electrician so I can have something to fall back on for my children."
What a man, what an experience, and what a sushi bar.