Where to Find Japanese Food in the Hudson Valley
Simple seaweed to spectacular sushi
Artful design: Different colors and textures make Wasabi’s sushi a feast for the eyes (and mouth)
It’s not really all that complicated. Subtle and balanced, Japanese cuisine is simply elegant, emphasizing fresh ingredients from sea and land. Seaweeds are used to brew up simple stocks. Fish stocks flavor a range of dishes. Rice is an essential food and also yields an important cooking ingredient, sake. Soybeans are heaped into sauces, bean curd cakes (tofu), and many types of miso.
A classic Japanese-style meal moves from appetizers, or zensai — typically tiny tidbits of seasonal vegetables — to clear soup, to sashimi (raw fish served with garnishes and dipping sauces).
After this course, a broiled, steamed, simmered, or deep-fried dish is presented (perhaps seafood or vegetable tempura), followed by a vinegared or dressed salad — that is, one with a miso- or tofu-based dressing. Boiled rice, a miso-based soup, and pickles (daikon radish or salted umeboshi plum) round off the meal and aid digestion.
So where does sushi come in? It’s really more of a snack, developed as a kind of convenience food in the 19th century. And it’s been growing in popularity ever since — to the point that today, there seems to be a sushi joint on every corner.
It’s logical to think that sushi is all about the fish. After all, there is a whole lexicon about this Japanese dish that describes different toppings from the sea, from ebi (shrimp) to suzuki. (Sea bass! Who would’ve thought?) But sushi is actually a reference to the vinegared rice that is paired with raw seafood. The term actually means “it’s sour.”
When rolled into toasted and dried seaweed (nori) with an interior helping of pickled radish, cucumber, wasabi, seafood, and other ingredients, the sushi is called nori-maki. Sushi can be vegetarian, too, of course, with thinly sliced cucumber, tofu, avocado, and pickled daikon or plum, among other ingredients, harmonizing with the rice.
Maybe you know all this already. Let’s say you’re a sushi snob and have tasted it all. You still need to pay a visit to Wasabi in Nyack, named for the head-clearing green paste derived from a Japanese plant that often accompanies sushi. The 83-seat restaurant has earned raves for its artistic rolls and other creations. In the candlelit dining room with large adjoining bar, the excitement is palpable. Everyone expects something marvelous and exciting to emerge from the kitchen — perhaps lobster with asparagus, mustard aïoli, and jewel-like black caviar served in a martini glass.
“I always say you eat with your eyes,” says chef/owner Doug Nyugen. “When we bring out three [sushi] rolls, they not only have to taste different but look different, too, so we use colors and decorations to make them more beautiful.” His signature mango rolls, for example, have a tropical orange outside and a spicy salmon tartare interior. His sashimi sampler spans a rainbow of hues from palest shell pink to brilliant ruby.
But the biggest surprise of all is Nyugen’s own story. At age 12, he fled the Communist takeover of Vietnam by boat, was rescued at sea by Thai fishermen, and eventually made it to America — thanks to the generosity of a Rockland County family who adopted him and introduced him to American ways, which included their Italian-American home cooking.
As a teen, Nyugen worked in the kitchens of Japanese and Chinese restaurants. When he finally struck out on his own, opening Wasabi in 2003, his background showed in the food: Japanese, but with some Italian accents.
In what other Japanese restaurant would you find octopus carpaccio? “It’s very Italian, but it has a little soy sauce so you get the Asian flavor,” says Nyugen. Just as fun (and touching), his calamari is accompanied by a hoisin sauce, and the tuna taco is spiked with yuzu yogurt, which is made with Asian citrus.
“That’s the whole beauty of being in America,” says Nyugen. “You can be anything you like.”
News flash: Nyugen recently opened a Manhattan outpost in the Plaza Hotel. “That’s going to be the future of New York City dining. No one wants to sit down and have one chicken or steak anymore — you don’t want to eat too much and get fat. Just try a variety of good quality foods.”
If you go...