They say we eventually come to look like what we truly are. Our inner selves transform the outer ones little by little, nudging our whole being into alignment, until we make a reflective house of our bodies the way a snail articulates its shell. Or maybe it's the opposite: skin and bones toughen and bend, calluses and squint lines accumulate where they're needed. Think of the long, pliant fingers of a pianist, a horsewoman's bowed legs, or even the way people come to resemble their dogs. Nature tugs, gently and irresistibly, toward harmony in form and function.
With his nearly flat profile, moist eyes, and mouth formed in a permanent, fleshy moue, Chef Kenny looks like a Japanese carp in human clothing, a fancy goldfish standing on its tail, wearing spectacles and a polka-dotted chef's cap. This round, pink-faced man is made up of overlapping circles without a single point or angle; he's as ovoid as an animal bred through generations for the perfection of its curves. Behind his sushi bar at Takeyama, cutting and patting and flipping, he glides placidly back and forth in the same narrow pool he's occupied now for 30 years.
Takeyama, one of Broward County's oldest Japanese restaurants, is hidden away from the flare and fizzle of the SoFla food scene — its fast money and faster bankruptcies — in a shabby Plantation strip mall off Broward Boulevard. Think back to a day when the words nigiri, hamachi, and ponzu seemed as exotic as Samurai performing Shakespeare and you'll get an idea of the spot-in-time oddness of the place. It looks long lived in, paneled and carpeted, specials scrawled across the dingy blackboard at the door. Over the years, the plastic covers on the wooden tables have pushed up a tactile map of bubbles and ridges, like an ancient landform or a sheet of Braille; in the lanterns strung across the ceiling, the paper is as brittle as moths' wings. A dull yellow light settles on everything — it's the light of noodle houses seen from the wet street outside, the flat light of a Hopper painting. You walk into the brown room with its brown furniture and sallow glow, the accumulated decades of miso and seaweed smell. The chef looks up over misty eyeglasses sliding down his snub little nose and bows.
A dozen or so place settings are made up at the L-shaped sushi bar: lacquered trays, saucers, and teapots. That's where the regulars sit, a slow, steady flow of them most nights, as if Kenny's customers have agreed among themselves to keep to a civilized schedule, to not overtax the chef and his towering, horse-faced assistant or the waitress with her encyclopedic knowledge of sea life or the shy, half-invisible hostess in her whispering kimono.
The chef knows his customers' names and their stories. This one, canoodling over the black cod appetizer with his gamine girlfriend, was a famous child actor, although he's hardly more than a child now. That one's a local sportscaster with his trio of leggy daughters. The middle-aged lady dining alone can eat her weight in stone crab. And you, the newcomer, are as netted as a sweet shrimp hauled from a cold sea: You're pleased, excited, and a little scared.
People come here and spend a lot of money with the compulsiveness of habitual gamblers. They don't mean to; it starts easy, the way big losses always do. You pick out something simple on the menu — you're not really that hungry, anyway; maybe a bowl of clear soup or some eggplant with ponzu sauce. And then the waitress appears, her broad, pretty face shining with anticipation over your good fortune. She breathlessly explains that tonight, tonight, you are in luck:
There are sweet shrimp ($3.50 each). There is mirugae, a giant orange clam ($20). There is scallop still in the shell, not like other sushi houses, so fresh you taste sea floor ($20). Black cod ($14 for the appetizer), barbecue with Chef Kenny's special sauce, just off the plane today; same thing for sea eel ($11) — Japanese eel, not regular eel, sweet-so-sweet-so-tender-so-fresh, dunked in Kenny's tempura batter, then fried quickly: It floats off plate right into your mouth, like magic. New style sashimi, seared bronzini ($20) but still raw inside. Stone crab, of course, ice cold in its shell, with a bowl of secret mustard sauce, a delicious appetizer (the crab priced by the ounce, like gold: Ours was $22).
The waitress, your best friend now, smacks her lips and rolls her eyes and makes moaning sounds. Oh, and one more thing: the finest toro (market price, usually $10 or $12 a piece), the only toro you'll ever need — either seared for a split second to take on a hint of smoke, then painted with a brush stroke of Japanese barbecue sauce, or served raw as sashimi, pink and quivering and laced with fatty threads of silver.
Odysseus' sailors never succumbed to the Sirens the way my partner and I marooned ourselves on the rocky shores of this good lady's enthusiasm; they had the foresight to stuff their ears full of wax, we heard loud and clear. And every word she uttered was true, every rapturous description accurate. That sea eel did float. That bronzini was bliss.
I don't think our experience was rare. When you go to Takeyama — and if you love Japanese food, you must go — take with you exactly as much cash as you can reasonably spend plus whatever restraint you can summon. Ask the chef or the expert waitress for recommendations, and eat slowly. It helps to sip between bites from the square wooden cup of cold sake you've ordered ($18 for the rare dry sake, Hananomai, made in Kenny's hometown). This lacquered cup has been filled precisely to the tippy-top like an infinity pool, so the slightest wobble sends it cascading into the saucer underneath; it's served this way so you can keep an exact tally of what you've drunk (or, even better, how much is being poured — unlike the European wine glass, which is a notoriously inexact vessel of measurement). You empty the saucer back into your cup at the end so you don't miss a molecule.
Remember: Though Kenny keeps threatening to retire, Takeyama will probably still be around next year. You don't need to try every single special on the blackboard tonight, no matter what ecstasies your server is acting out. That Takeyama hand roll all the regulars adore ($5)? It'll be on the menu next week, I promise. Though you'll quite possibly never want to eat stone crab at any other restaurant again, because no claw is quite this luscious, no mustard sauce quite so addictive (made with sake? Miso? Chef's lips are sealed), the crab season runs until mid-May. Pace yourself.
After a couple of practice runs, you might dare ask the chef for omakase. Give him a price range and put your faith in his hands. Depending on your budget, the chef's choice might include beautifully balanced seafood in many guises — sweet against tart, levity against weight. That giant scallop (brought to your table "still breathing" so you can ooooooh over it before it's opened) is of a sweetness so pure, you'll experience the essence of scallop. Kenny does no more than cut it into bite-sized pieces and arrange it back in its shell.
Don't smoosh your sashimi around in horseradish paste here. You'd be crazy to blot out the fragile essences of oily mackerel or pale, translucent fluke; the unctuous kingfish and cleverly circumspect halibut, all of it painstakingly sourced and flown in from far away just for your pleasure. The striped jack, the little raw shrimps with their strange texture of clear jelly and their crispy, flash-fried tails; the moist wave of hand-cured salmon on its ottoman of rice; or the creamy, deep-sea pudding of uni spilling like an overfed belly over a tight waistband of kelp: They're too good to compromise with even a single drop of soy sauce.
All this fish needs is your undivided attention.