Cold Sake, Warm Heart
We've evolved to protect ourselves from dangerous food. We have a genetic predisposition to find spoiled vittles repellent, and we must "acquire a taste" for bitter or stinky foodstuffs like coffee or Campari because weird-tasting food could be poisonous. On some level, perhaps the molecular one, we know that each meal could be our last. To soothe that kind of anxiety, we also have developed complicated dining rituals and manners.
Take, for instance, one of our fiercest taboos, against murdering our guests. Once you share your bread you're not supposed to knock off the person who's accepted your invitation. That's why Macbeth and his lady get in such existential trouble, because they kill Duncan in their own home. When we set a table, we always turn the blade of the knife toward the plate and away from the person seated to our right; it's symbolic reassurance that we won't stab anyone. The elaborate way that an American uses cutlery — slicing her meat, putting down her knife, passing her fork from left hand to right — is in part a ritualized message: "I'm just using this dagger to cut my pork chop; I won't slit your throat." This is why Italians insist that both hands must be visible at table — to prove that no hand conceals a weapon. It's why it's horrid form for Japanese to point at someone with chopsticks. The fear of being murdered while we eat, our attention on the soup, our backs to the door, has been honed into our etiquette. Why is the tablecloth white? So we can see that it's clean. Our host samples the wine to ascertain that it's safe. Hot towels and fingerbowls cleanse our phobias.
If that sounds farfetched, consider how easily we're sickened by mishandled food, the hamburger or scallions infected with E. coli, the underdone eggs teeming with salmonella, the ease with which a waiter or cook can spread typhus, and you begin to understand all the seeming pomp and ceremony that goes into restaurant service. It's devised to assure us that our hosts are paying strict attention. Restaurant service is like a pyramid: At the broad bottom is an unspoken promise that you won't die from eating at Casa du Maison, expressed in the gleaming silver, the spotless glasses, hot soup, and a sense of order. You ascend the pyramid to niceties such as a warm greeting from a manager, a maitre d' who knows your favorite cocktail, or a hostess with a sixth sense about your mood.
I've been thinking about hospitality lately because I'm reading Danny Meyer's book Setting the Table. If you've ever eaten in one of Meyer's New York restaurants — Gramercy Tavern, 11 Madison Park, or the bar at the Modern — you probably remember how good the wait staff made you feel, their unpretentiousness, warmth, and intelligence. Meyer's restaurants are distinguished by their accessibility: Every customer, new or old, gets treated like a V.I.P. And that led me to restaurants I've been to lately with a similar knack, not for service but hospitality. Service, Meyer says, is "technical delivery of a product," whereas hospitality is how a customer is made to feel. You can find true hospitality at the high end or low; you may feel welcomed, warmed, and soothed over a banger, wing, or rib at your local dive, or over a plate of spaghetti at some middling trattoria. Or over a bowl of clam soup at an Asian restaurant like Fuji.
The three-year-old restaurant in west Boca, part sushi emporium, part Chinatown, part nouvelle Asian, is owned by Jammy Yan, a sexy guy who dresses in black and wears designer specs, looking, with his spiked hair and louche posture, like he just stepped out of the pages of Maxim. But when he greets you coming or going, Yan's smile is winning, his handshake genuine. He loves the restaurant biz. This is his second venture; his first place started out with just four seats. Fuji is expansive, with two bars (one for sushi, one for sake), a wall of booths, a couple of raised platforms where you can sit at low tables on tatami, a panoramic mural of Mount Fuji, and a nook hidden by beaded silver curtains.
Yan has composed an opening blurb for his seven-page sake menu. "Fuji Asian Cuisine was created to be living and vibrant; responsive to you," he writes. "Your dining experience is a privilege you extend to us for its fulfillment and one we accept with gratitude." That sake menu, along with the bubbly service provided by a bevy of waitresses, is a good indication of the enthusiasm and detail Yan specializes in. His list of more than 60 personally selected sakes starts with an overview of locally produced jizake and a map of Japan's sake territories (each prefecture of the tiny country produces its own distinct version). Fuji's menu distinguishes types of sake based on the degree to which rice is polished, fermented, and aged, whether or not alcohol is added, and where the water to make it comes from. The last page shows a diagram of the polishing, washing, soaking, steaming, and squeezing that produce the final bottle.
Over the course of a couple of dinners we sampled two sakes, one expensive (Kasanui Kitaya, $54, from southwestern Fukuoka) and one not (Bunraku Nihonjin no Wasuremono, $16, from mid-eastern Saitama). Both were served chilled. The Kasanui was considerably smoother and a bit sweeter, but both tasted like the essence of mountain water distilled and rendered into alcohol — snowy cold, dry, refreshing, and very drinkable. Japanese sake makers know as much about the source, mineral content, and flavor of the water that goes into their brew as any California winemaker about her soil and rainfall. The sakes pair beautifully with delicate Japanese preparations, brilliant green baby bok choy accompanying "XO" sea scallops ($22), a quartet of fat roasted shellfish in a deep brown sauce fragrant with rice vinegar and peppers. It married well with the alternating crunch and moisture in a roll made from crab, cucumber, avocado, and spicy tuna (the Dirty Old Man, $10), and with one fashioned from eel, avocado, and crab with salmon on top (First Love roll, $10, and as fresh as the sentiment). The cool, clean sake made a foil for dense, earthy clam soup with shiitake mushrooms ($5), and a dish of littlenecks in their shells sautéed with fermented black beans, red and green peppers, and sautéed sliced onions ($10). This last was a particular favorite, recommended by our waitress, who had a knack for pointing us in the right direction: an appetizer of Osaka tuna ($12), battered and cooked tempura-style, sliced to reveal a cool, ruby center and drizzled with Yan's special sauce, made from wasabe, mayonnaise, garlic, and herbs. That was some rockin' tunafish.
Still, my favorite dishes were Chinese or pan-Asian. An appetizer of Mott Street roast pork ($9, entrée $16) was as velvety, complicated, and subtly infused with spices as any pork dish I've had in any Chinatown from San Fran to New York. Sliced chicken breast with ginseng and ginger ($18) energized the spirit with its hot yin and silky yang. Dinners come with soup or salad, a vegetable, and a choice of brown or white rice. Homey, attentive service and family-style dishes merge effortlessly into the place's chic style with its waterfalls, recessed lighting, and clubby beats on the sound system, balancing opposites.
Our waitress brought us a complimentary dish of mochi for dessert, ice cream wrapped in soft rice starch, the texture of the rice casing almost fleshy, in a good way, and her pleasure at our pleasure was just as palpable. One of the characteristics of true hospitality is that the evening passes effortlessly in a wash of good will.
You don't realize what's happened until it's over.
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