Friday, April 15, 2016

"Let's Talk About Sushi" At AKA Bistro

Since its opening in 2010, AKA Bistro, in Lincoln, has remained one of my favorite restaurants, a suburban gem which is located only a few minutes off Rt.128. It offers both French bistro cuisine as well as creative Japanese fare, especially innovative sashimi dishes. They source much of their ingredients locally and the seafood is always fresh. They serve lunch, dinner and brunch so there are plenty of opportunities to check out their menus.

One of my favorite dishes is their Moules Frites, the mussels within a compelling broth in which you should dip your crusty rolls. You might even just want a straw (which they actually provide for the broth in one of their Steamed Clam dishes). Their Miso Soup is one of the best I've ever had, putting to shame the thin, lackluster miso soups you find at a number of spots. Their wine list is strong on French wines, including Alsatian, and they also have a small, but well curated section of Japanese Sake.  If you haven't been there yet, I highly recommend you check it out.

Earlier this week, AKA Bistro held a special popup event, Let's Talk About Sushi, a collaboration between Master Sushi Chefs Chris Chung of AKA Bistro and Youji Iwakura of Atelier Kitchen Zen. They were assisted by Assistant Sushi Chef Philip Wolfe. The dinner, which cost $98 per person, offered essentially 12 courses of food, from an amuse-bouche to dessert, and most of the courses were Sushi

There were suggested wine and Sake pairings for each dish, and if you opted for all of those pairings, it cost about another $100. However, you could also choose just a few of the pairings, each which were separately priced. Some of selections included wines and Sake that were not usually available by the glass. I opted to get a bottle of Kubota Senju Tokubetsu Honjozo Sake ($58), a clean, dry and aromatic Sake that would pair well with the various Sushi dishes.

The event was held in the main dining area and the Chefs worked at one end of the room, fully visible to all of the diners. It was fascinating to watch the intensity of the chefs as they worked, to see the care and attention that went into each dish. They seemed to be perfectionists, ensuring that each dish met their strict standards. They made sure that each piece of nigiri had the proper ratio of rice for the size and type of the topping. Both Chris and Youji bring many years of sushi experience to the table and their exquisite skills were more than evident in the dishes that we were served.

Most of the Sushi dishes were Nigiri ('hand-pressed"), seafood or other items atop vinegared rice. However, each dish was more creative than just a piece of fish atop rice, adding other flavors and textures to elevate the dish. The fish and other main toppings still were the stars of each dish, but they had costarring additions to make each bite even more compelling. The freshness and quality of the toppings were evident and not a single dish was a failure. The dinner provided plenty of diversity and complexity, and I craved seconds of all of the various dishes. I'm not even sure I could choose a single favorite from all those tasty plates.

Chef Chris Chung, on the left, and Assistant Sushi Chef, Philip Wolfe, on the right.

Chef Youji Iwakura.

We began with an Amuse Bouche, Hand Crafted Tofu with uni, mirin sabayon, and dashi soy. A well balanced dish of creamy tofu, briny uni and the umami of the dashi soy. It reminded me of the salty foam of the sea, an excellent starting point for all of the seafood which was soon to come.

Next up was a Takiawase (appetizer), Sake Steamed Local Clams with white wine glacé, morel & fresh bamboo shoots. The broth was savory and stellar, though I expected it would be as AKA Bistro has always done a great job on broths with shellfish, from mussels to clams. You had to consume every bit of the broth as it was just that delicious. The tender clams were in contrast to the crunchy bamboo shoot, which added a little bitterness to the dish.

We moved onto our first Sushi dish, Kama Toro, which is part of the tuna around its collarbone. The Kama is high in fat, making it very tender, and its flavor is more concentrated that most other parts of the tuna. As this is a rare cut, it was a special treat. This Kama was marinated yakiniku, grilled over bincho tan, with nikiri-soy (a sweet soy sauce). This sushi was lightly warm, melted in my mouth like creamy butter and there was a light sweetness to the intense taste of the tuna. Simply superb. This was far above the usual tuna you have at sushi restaurants.

The Cured Sawara, which is Spanish Mackerel, was made with hibiscus vinegar, house made ume, and Okinanawa black sugar. In contrast to the Kama, this fish had a firmer texture and was a bit more oily (in a good way). There was also a nice contrast in this dish of the vinegar with a little sweetness. Another tasty Nigiri.

The Mategai, which are Razor Clams, were accompanied by a Shichimi Togarashi cured Meyer lemon slice. The meaty razor clams had even more texture and were chewier, though not in a bad way. They possessed a clean taste, enhanced by a bit of lemon, and the slight saltiness of the nori. The first three Sushi dishes offered a nice progression of textures and tastes.

The Bincho Maguro, which is Wild Albacore Tuna, was minute marinated in zuke-soy and fresh horseradish. Silky tuna, with a spicy kick, it had a texture closer to the Sawara. An excellent piece of tuna, far better than the average maguro you find in many other spots.

The presentation for this dish, Seared Hangar Steak, was cool as the glass held in the aromatic smoke. The steak was accompanied by black lava salt, burnt rosemary scent, AA choy (a Chinese vegetable also known as Taiwan lettuce), and blood orange kosho (a salted cured condiment). This was a Steak Nigiri, sitting atop vinegared rice. The beef had a smoky edge to it, with a strong flavor of rosemary, and nice acidity from the kosho. The beef was tender, with a nice texture, and it made for an interesting diversity after several dishes of seafood.

The Maitake Mushroom Mini-Musubi was sautéed in garlic oil and that atop toasted nori. We were told to roll up the nori, making our own little hand roll. It was savory and salty, with lots of umami and a hint of toastiness. A nice blend of flavors.

The Poached & Seared Monkfish, with shio koji (a seasoning) and brown butter, was topped by what seemed to be a pickled onion. The tender and lightly sweet monkfish was enhanced by the crunchy onion. The taste was clean and light, with savory notes giving some umami to the dish.

The Gyoku, Edomae Tamago, is essentially an egg omelet and was accompanied by truffle butter and sakura blossom salt. The truffle butter was like a powder atop the tamago. The rich and slightly sweet egg taste was enhanced by the umami-rich truffle taste and a mild saltiness. Definitely one of the top tamago dishes I've ever had.

Our last savory dish was Wan, a Noodle Soup, of Homemade Soba with salmon caviar and yam julienne. The aroma of this dish was so alluring and the taste delivered on those aromas, presenting an enticing savory broth, with the saltiness from the roe. The noodles had a good consistency, with just the right amount of bite to them. The yam slices added a bit of crunch to the dish, and also helped to cleanse your palate.

The final dish, which I didn't get a photo, was the Dessert, the Choux à la mode, basically an ice cream puff with azuki and amazake ice cream. Sweet and creamy, with a flaky pastry shell, it was a pleasing finale to this stellar dinner.

Overall, this was a stellar dinner and each and every dish succeeded. The diversity of ingredients, textures and flavors delighted the eyes and the palate. Kudos to the chefs for all of their hard work in creating this sushi dinner. Chef Chris Chung has also told me that they will be doing another Sushi popup in the future so I strongly encourage my readers to attend the next event. And if you haven't been to AKA Bistro yet, you should also check out their usual menu.

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