I generally take a conservative approach to sushi. I don’t have much interest in fast food sushi or novelty rolls. Supposedly sushi is an art it takes a lifetime to master, and I’ve been lucky enough to have tasted some great examples of it here, on the West Coast and in Japan. That’s made me a little bit of a purist – I’d rather forgo the stuff entirely than shell out my hard-earned dough for lackluster examples. This orthodoxy allowed me to be caught off guard when I came across the most compelling thing I’ve eaten in a while at Ni Japanese Deli in the Essex Street Market.
Ni is an interesting place. It’s a small family business, run by a small family. The food they prepare is a modern Japanese-American take on health food. The concepts and flavor profiles are Japanese, but the ingredients would be familiar to anyone who’s ever shopped in a health food store: brown rice, miso, burdock, lotus root and the like. It’s the local source for kombucha. They’re sincerely fighting the Good Fight, and I couldn’t help but find that charming, even if the sushi purist in me scoffed at the brown rice rolls they offer. In this case my inner purist was wrong.
I would never have found this out on my own. It took the help of a friend who happens to be such a food nerd that he has a sous-vide set up in his apartment kitchen. He’d come to the neighborhood to pick up some pork blood for his homemade morcilla, and asked for a tour of the market. My Modernist buddy was fascinated by Ni, and bought a sushi roll without hesitation. The roll was composed of brown rice, quark cheese from Saxelby and smoked mackerel from Russ and Daughters. We shared this uniquely Lower East Side combination, and it was a revelation. Odd? Yes. Challenging? Almost. But absolutely compelling. After a spin around the market we parted ways, each a little smug about our find. It isn’t everyday that a casual afternoon snack changes your perspective.
Of course I’ve been back for more. A recent version replaced the quark with citrus scented arugula. Also delicious and unexpected. The flavor and texture of the smoked mackerel against the brown rice still leaves me reeling. It’s more than just shock of the new; it makes perfect sense. It’s seven dollars very well spent.
There’s no way a business like Ni could exist without an incubator like the Essex Street Market. And without them and my fearless nerd friend there’s probably no way I’d ever be enthusing about the novel sushi rolls from a tiny health food store. If you’re hungry for an adventurous bite I’d recommend a trip to Ni. They’ve changed some of my preconceived notions about health food, and brown rice sushi rolls in particular.
JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well, consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.
Pinot Noir is a notoriously difficult grape. Couple that with its ability to make light-bodied, elegant reds and it’s easy to understand why it was the choice of generations of European noblemen. Today the popularity of wine made from this varietal gives us examples at all prices, some even a pauper can afford. Unfortunately many of the better examples still command high prices. (In the $80 a bottle range). Which is why I’m still excited about a wine I’ve mentioned in this column before: Pierre Clarron, Bourgogne Haute-Cotes de Beaune ($15 at Seward Park Liquors). Light and elegant, with cherry notes and good tannins, this is wine in the classic Burgundy style for less than half the price of a more prestigious Burgundy. It also never fails to impress my French friends. If you’re looking to drink like a nobleman on a budget this is the tipple for you.