Banzai: Cold Fish, Warm Welcome

by Robert Lauriston

SENSITIVITY WARNING: The following warnings are offered for those readers who might interpret portions of the following article as insensitive to their own or others' beliefs or traditions. Animal Rights: Both cold- and warm-blooded animals were harmed during production of this article; the author displays no remorse. Diversity: References to holiday celebrations display extreme European/Christian bias; author passes judgment on culinary tradition outside his/her ethnic background. Recovery: Positive portrayals of alcohol consumption and binge-purge eating many threaten sobriety of recovering alcoholics and overeaters. Violence: Knives brandished, 1 murder (crustacean-American).

One of the less celebrated popular amusements of the holiday season is the vulgarization of Christmas carols. I can't hear "Jingle Bells" without half-remembered fragments of "Batman Smells" popping uninvited into my mind, and Mel Torme's "everybody knows a turkey" sometimes suits the occasion better if you stop before the mistletoe.

Handel's Messiah is particularly good for this puerile pursuit, since the lyrics are twisted and permutated to the point that naive listeners are often surprised to discover they're actually in English. "We like sheep" is always good for a sacrilegious giggle--though of course when librettist Charles Jennens plucked those phrases out of the King James Bible he had no such double-entendre in mind. After all, he conceived the piece for performance not during the Christmas season but the week before Easter, and his overriding concern was to make it pious enough that the authorities would exempt the piece from the usual prohibitions against concerts during Holy Week--thus ensuring packed houses.

Anyway, lines like "He shall feed His flock like a shepherd" take on a different meaning for me after I've had the holiday feedbag tied on for a few weeks. What is it about that time of year that drives somebody to eat like a 19th-century farmworker with a sweet tooth? I don't know about your house, but around here it starts to feel like we're in training for the Olympic smorgy competition--stollen, challah, and last night's leftover pie for breakfast, nibbling all day on chocolates, roasted nuts, and cheese logs, lunching on yesterday's leftover desserts, grazing holiday-party buffets in the early evening before dragging ourselves off to yet another in a seemingly endless string of multicourse celebratory dinners awash in fine wines and spirits, and a final late-night snack of fruitcake before heaving our bloated torsos into bed with the sincere belief that the following day we simply won't be able to eat a bite.

After a month or so this routine, I'm glad to see New Year's pass and get back to a normal diet. Well, actually, something less than my normal diet, since I'd like to shed those two or three Christmas kilos and can't spend all day at the gym. In fact, some of our January meals wouldn't be out of place at Dean Ornish's house, knock on wood. Still, even when in weight-loss mode, it's still nice to go out to eat once in a while. Hong Kong seafood, signature-chef spa cuisine, and vegetarian restaurants are all good choices for lean times, but my personal favorite diet dine-out is Japanese food, particularly sushi.

One of the best and certainly the friendliest sushi bar in the East Bay is Banzai, a cozy spot tucked away on a quiet corner of Camelia St. a couple of blocks west of San Pablo. Particularly when compared with your typical sushi bar's decadent, nightclubbish feel, Banzai is downright wholesome. It's very much a family operation, with owners Hideyasu Nagano behind the bar, Chieko Nagano waiting tables, and their son Max doing his homework in the corner, occasionally taking a break to charm the customers. To add to the healthy atmosphere, there's no smoking anywhere in the restaurant and, unlike most sushi chefs we know, Hide never drinks, at least not when he's on duty.

According to Shizuo Tsuji, from whose classic cookbook Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art (Kodansha, 1980) I've extracted most of the background information included in this review, sushi developed out of a traditional method for preserving funa (crucian, a kind of carp). The fish was salted, then laid on a bed of vinegared rice to age. At first the rice was discarded, but eventually people began to eat it with the cured funa, and later with other fish. While today most kinds of sushi use raw fish, there is one that harks back to these origins: saba (mackerel). At Banzai, Hide filets the fish, salts it, lets it cure for five hours, and finally marinates it in sweet rice vinegar for 40 minutes. Ironically, though saba is thus the farthest from raw of any uncooked sushi, its decidedly fishy flavor comes the closest to fulfilling the taste image the words "raw fish" inspire in the uninitiated. Hide's is exquisite--on our last visit, it was so good that we immediately ordered a second round.

On the opposite pole is maguro (red tuna), the best beginner's sushi, so un-fishy that people often compare the flavor to raw steak. Personally I find maguro nigiri (the classic sushi, strips of fish laid on top of rice fingers) boring, so we ordered it as sashimi (just the fish) instead. The platter came with a few leaves of shiro--a member of the mint family, though one with a very subtle flavor--and a pile of radish sprouts, which perked up the raw fish. In the same vein were some perfect hamachi (yellowtail) nigiri.

Bland fish like maguro and hamachi are well-served by a dunk in murasaki (reduced soy sauce) into which you've stirred wasabi to taste. Though commonly thought of as a kind of horseradish, (Armoraica rusticana or lapathifolia), wasabi is actually made from a completely unrelated plant, mountain hollyhock (Wasabia japonica). A tip from Tsuji: dip nigiri into the sauce fish side down, and they won't be as likely to fall apart when you take a bite. A tip from me: when trying a new kind of sushi, take a bite before dipping, as some sushi are completely overpowered by the strong soy-wasabi combo. A good example of this is Hide's shiromi (white-meat fish like halibut) nigiri with shizo, which is just perfect all by itself. Other kinds of sushi come with their own strong flavors and don't need anything else. At Banzai, such dishes include katsuo (bonito tuna), quickly grilled to sear the surface, plunged into ice water to keep the inside raw, then served with a special soy sauce and chopped garlic; and gyuniku, strips of raw beef similarly sauced and garnished.

My spouse had been eating sushi for maybe 15 years before finally getting up the courage to try anago. It was more a verbal thing than anything else. "Eating raw fish" was one thing, "eating eels" another. Ironically, anago is about as threatening as a dim sum pork bao, which is to say nearly as innocuous as a Big Mac. First the salt-water anago eel is simmered in stock, then grilled, and finally brushed with a thick, sweet sauce. Hide's are a classic example of the genre--too bad I don't get to eat the whole order myself any more.

Definitely not for the squeamish is one of my personal favorites, uni (sea urchin roe). The runny mass of tiny fish eggs would slide right off a nigiri, so instead it's served in a sort of cup made of nori seaweed, plugged at the bottom by sushi rice. The one I had on our last visit to Banzai was particularly fresh, profoundly sea-y, almost like a liquid oyster. Equally good (and less of an acquired taste) was a similar mouthful made with tobiko (flying fish roe), the tiny, crunchy eggs that often decorate various kinds of maki (rolled sushi).

Speaking of rolls, Banzai offers a couple of unusual ones. I'm not sure if they're on the menu, since we discovered them the way we've discovered many of our favorite sushi dishes: "Could we have some of whatever you just made them?" Hide's "B-29" is yellowtail, eel, shrimp, vegetables, and sushi rice, wrapped in nori, then battered and fried like tempura. Hide claims he invented this dish, and other local sushi chefs who serve it copied his idea. The "spider roll" is sort of the opposite: soft-shell crab is tempura-fried, then made into a roll with tomago (sweet omelette), carrot, and grated cucumber, wrapped in nori, and finally covered with a layer of sushi rice and rolled in tobiko, giving the slices a lovely orange-speckled white surface. (Yes, I know we're supposed to be talking post-holidays diet food here, so these fried goodies are out of place, but thanks to the magic of Express lead times we actually ate this meal in the thick of the holiday gluttony.)

Another creative raw-fried combination we discovered at Banzai is ama-ebi shrimp. First comes an order of simple shrimp nigiri. Since the meat is opaque white instead of translucent gray, I would have guessed the shrimp had been slightly cooked, but Hide insisted they were raw. Then, a few minutes later, the heads of the shrimp come out of the kitchen, deep-fried and so crunchy that you can eat the whole thing, with the possible exception of the eyeballs. This two-act dish reminded our dining companions of a very special treat the chef at their old favorite sushi bar (since closed) made them once, fresh lobster sushi. How fresh was it? So fresh that while the lobster-tail nigiri were served, the other half of the crustacean was crawling away down the counter. And I thought odori (dancing shrimp) were creepy.

Suddenly feeling rather stuffed, we were happy when Hide passed over a couple of bowls of seaweed salad. Thin strips of flat seaweed were tossed with sesame seeds, hot pepper, and a dressing that I guessed was made with sesame oil and sweet rice vinegar. That revived our flagging appetites, so we asked Hide if there was anything great on hand we'd missed. He allowed as how the tako (octopus) wasn't too tough that night, which was quite an understatement--it was remarkably tender and sweet. He said we'd hit the rest of the high spots, so we finished off with an order of the exemplary California maki, made with top-quality avocados and real crab, and another helping of the extraordinary saba, the hit of the evening. We ended our meal with mugs of steaming hot agari ("finished," sushi slang for after-meal tea) to warm us up for the cold weather outside.

The sushi tab came to $90, and with drinks, tax, and generous tip the total bill for the four of us was $155. However, that's kind of misleading, as the bill was significantly inflated by yours truly's professional obligation to taste everything in sight--the typical Banzai sushi bill runs closer to $25 a head. The kitchen staff also turn out a full menu of cooked dishes, which I've never tried, but judging by the quality of the tempura in the B-29 and spider rolls it's probably quite good.

As we were bundling up and saying our arigatos, happy to have had such a delightful meal, I was wondering why I don't eat sushi as often as I used to. On the drive home, it turned out everybody else was thinking the same thing. Anyway, as delicious as the food is, what really makes Banzai special is the warm welcome you get from the Nagano family. Here's wishing them a happy new year, and many more to come. And here's my new year's resolution for 1994: eat more sushi.

Banzai Sushi & Cafe, 1019 Camelia St., Berkeley, 524-6625. 11:30-2 Tues.-Fri., 5:30-10pm, Tues.-Sun.