Saturday, February 17, 2007

Eating. Nishino.

It is Chinese New Year's Eve, and some friends are in town. I remember how I met them, three siblings younger than I. Our families went to brunch at a fancy hotel downtown; it was Mother's day and we made uncomfortable small talk across a table that could seat twenty or so people, cocooned in a small private dining room off the Georgian Room at what was then the Four Seasons Olympic hotel. (This is the place I once described as having white moldings that curled around the pale yellow walls like lace). I remember awkwardly toying with my smoked salmon frittata and giving monosyllabic answers to the sort of questions strangers ask when they are trying to get to know you.

Later, the shyness fading, we bonded over the Taiwanese pop music I had started listening to in college; it was a Thanksgiving dinner at my house and we turned the music up so loud the ceiling shook. We only see each other when our lives intersect - when their parents and mine are in the same city at the same time - a rare occurrence. But tonight we are all in the same city at the same time, and we head for dinner at Nishino, one of my favorite restaurants in this city. It is the night before the Chinese New Year, the night you go out for dinner to welcome the coming year.

Tonight instead of ordering sushi and various specialties off the menu we have asked the chef to prepare an omakase dinner, where the chef chooses an array of dishes for you. I did this once with a friend; it took three hours and ten kinds of seafood. This time it is a little different, served family-style, and a little less delicate and refined. Some of the dishes are familiar - hamachi sashimi with slivers of hot peppers, grilled octopus over a salad of mixed baby greens, a variety of sushi that I can't identify, except for the toro, which is as perfect as ever.

The four of us 'kids' have one end of the long table, the parents conversing animatedly at the other end; their conversation a background hum to ours as we talk about my ineptitude at video games, about whatever has taken place in our lives since we last met. There is a platter of taro chips arranged around tuna sashimi chopped into small cubes and tossed with cilantro and other seasonings, a fine sheet of omelet rolled around tempura shrimp and bright vegetables. And then comes a heavy iron kettle, steam rising gently from the soup within. There are pieces of black cod, sweet and tender, slippery cubes of tofu, shards of seaweed; the broth is clear and intense and for the first time I understand what the Japanese mean by umami, that mysterious sense of taste.

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