37-12 31st Ave
Astoria, NY 11103
Preface: In the past, despite rating each individual serving, the final ratings within the Categories of Freshness and Preparation were both still highly subjective. I didn’t lock down specific ranges for the category’s rating. I’ve come to realize that allowing myself such liberties resulted in higher than anticipated variability. As of this post, I’ve adjusted the rating system to be more specific and consistent. Not to say I won’t allow myself to do slight bump-ups or downs, but at least you’ll know when I do.
So… Gajin… Astoria… Really freaking far from home! I had to do some major arm twisting to get boyfriend to agree to making this pilgrimage. Luckily, he’s always wanted to visit Brooklyn Kura down in Industry City, Brooklyn. I suppose as we cross the river… two birds… Brooklyn Kura was cool, but to be honest, the cost of sake there is just too high. You can get quality dai-ginjo from big named Japanese distilleries cheaper than Brooklyn Kura’s ginjo… The snacks also need serious work. So, Cool? Sure! But not my thing. BTW we’ve recently visited Izakaya Juraku down in Lower East Side. They carry a sh*t ton of beer, and a whole lot of sake too (including a couple Brooklyn Kura sake), and their snacks are on-point! We only had a few things, but everything was uber flavorful!
So coming back full circle, back to the distance… See? There WAS A POINT to the distance conversation. It wasn’t just me complaining! For those native to Queens, for those that are adventurous and open to more progressive styles of sushi (non-Edomae), Gajin might be worth a try. For Brooklynites, if you’ve got a vehicle, and want to drive, probably worth a try as well. For Brooklynites without a vehicle, you probably have enough options in Park Slope and Williamsburg to attempt the public transport route. For Manhattanites, there are simply too many solidly good options in the city to make this a worthwhile trip. Sorry Chef Mark!
Truthfully, I write this post with a heavy heart. I WANT to like Gajin. Chef Mark is incredibly friendly, engaging, and super encouraging of group chatter, his sushi-bar-patrons getting to know each other. It’s like traditional Izakaya (pub) style, but with traditional-ish sushi-ya food. Best-of-both-worlds vibe. We had such a wonderful time. But my notes don’t lie. I taste each serving, and write detailed notes with ratings for each. I actually wonder if I was more generous with ratings than I should have been giving our high-spirits.
Unfortunately, the servings just aren’t where they need to be. With the mess of “budget” sushi-yas popping up in NYC, I’m very familiar and even a proponent of combining flavors in your sushi. Budget sushi-yas typically only stock 10-12 different varietals. The only way they can make variations is by combining them. Throwing the likes of caviar, ikura, uni, chu/otoro atop any fish, or variations of wagyu with toppers. I’m cool with ALL of that. Or the more inventive, and higher quality combos that Chef Dom Pham does at ISHIKAWA? YES! But you have to know how to combine the flavors, what works, what doesn’t work. I’m very sorry to say, out of the 17 servings more than half did not “work”.
There were three options for omakase at the sushi bar:
- $100 Starter – Appetizer, 9 Piece Sushi, Temaki, and Desert
- $130 Full – Appetizer, 12 Piece Sushi, Temaki, and Desert
- $160 Premier – Appetizer, 15 Piece Sushi, Temaki, and Desert
We were informed that the difference is not only in the number of servings, but the types of fish served.
We can EAT, so of course, we chose the Premier. Our Premier omakase includes a cooked appetizer (cooked SHIMA AJI), which if you’ve been reading my posts, if you plan on serving me anything fully cooked, you better make sure it’s darn good. It wasn’t. I ended up having the garnishes of the serving, but not the fish itself. That was followed by a series of puzzling combinations, where dressings either added no value, or downright fought the fish itself. That was highly irritating. The fish itself in every serving was perfectly fine, and every Edomae style serving, also fine. Improper toppings equal wasting good fish, and there were too many iterations of exactly that. The last thing I’ll comment to, is variety. Out of my 17 servings, there were three SHIMA-AJIs, and two CHU-TOROs, meaning only 14 distinctly different fishes. As usual, we tried to order additions, but there was nothing else. More disappointment…
Our Omakase tonight:
- Appetizer – SHIMA AJI (Striped Jack) – Chef Mark managed to maintain the moist and tenderness of the fish, while keeping a decent crunch on the skin. But seriously? A fully cooked SHIMA AJI? Are you cray??? I’ll pass. The highlight of this serving is actually in the vegetable pairings. Chef Mark paired the fish with an “ice berg” (that reminds me very much of BlinQ Blossoms), and seaweed. Those were awesome!
- KASUGODAI (Baby Sea bream) – Served with crushed egg yolk, which you would imagine would add flavor, but unfortunately not. Verdict: fish itself was super bland, and the egg yolk was nothing but a distraction.
- SHIMA AJI (Striped Jack) – How picturesque! Thank goodness Chef Mark didn’t cook this one. Very nice cut of SHIMA AJI, firm, muscular, tasty cut of SHIMA AJI. The slice of plum as a topping was different, interesting different.
- KINMEDAI (Golden Eye Snapper) – Served with the skin heavily ABURIed (torched), such that some of the meat got ABURIed too, but not overly so, thus well ABURIed in my book. The shaved apple topping however, that was so incredibly sweet, that discounted the serving as a whole.
- MADAI (Seabream) – Fully grilled (meaning fully cooked), atop UNI rice, wrapped with NORI. Unfortunately, there was not enough UNI to make the rice taste like UNI rice, just slightly flavored rice. And MADAI wasn’t cooked nearly as well as the SHIMA AJI (which as you recall, I didn’t enjoy cooked SHIMA AJI, but I was impressed with the moistness & tenderness of the fish, and crunchiness of the skin, this one was not comparable). This was a fail all around.
- SHIRAKO (Cod sperm sacs) – If I remember correctly, our last serving of SHIRAKO in NYC was at JUKU, in Chinatown. Sad to say, that was an epic fail, ridiculously fishy. Today’s was very respectable, fresh, sweet, creamy, very tasty. You know what’s odd? When the other counter patrons found what SHIRAKO was, they were all skeeved out… YET, no one had a problem with IKURA, UNI, or Oysters. Do we not understand it’s the same concept? I don’t discriminate, if it’s fresh, and the chef knows how to prepare it, I eat it, and I’ll love all it all!
- CHUTORO (Medium Fatty Tuna) – Fish itself was fantastic. Very well balanced fat content, very good flavor, and not at all chewy. I really don’t understand what is going on with the pickled wasabi though. The pickling made it somewhat sweet, but not the usual mustard spice, but the flavors were very confusing.
- KOHADA (Gizzard Shad) – Ok… if I had to sum up the omakase thus far with just one word, that word would be confusing. Kohada was fine, nothing stellar, still make it into the “good” category, but the kelp toping? HUH???
- AKAMI (Lean Tuna) – Just like the CHUTORO, the AKAMI was very good. Love me some AKAMI! The topping, the roasted nut and garlic, was again, is bizarre! Too much! Overkill!
- CHUTORO (Medium Fatty Tuna) – The first recognizable, and appropriate dressing! UNI, Ossetra and chives! YUM! Quality CHUTORO, check, quality UNI, check, quality Ossetra, check! Good job!
- LINKODAI (Baby Snapper) – I’m starting to get real mad. If it wasn’t for chef Mark’s great personality, I probably would have said something real brutal by now. The LINKODAI was perfectly good, the crazy nori/scallion/sesame seed/pear slice topping was a serious WTF.
- Trout – Just like the wave of every chef and their uncle incorporating UNI in their menu two years ago, every sushi-chef and their aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews have been adopting truffle in their sushi toppings. Some go as far as to serving JUST Truffle sushi. Typically, I’m not a fan. With most orange fishes however, I am! Shaved truffle and chive atop my ocean trout.
- BOTAN EBI (Spotted sweet shrimp) – Shrimp was so pink I thought it was the AKA EBI, but nope, Chef Mark said BOTAN EBI. I also thought that the gooey layer on top was cheese, boy would I have made a scene! Thank goodness, it was Santa Barbara UNI. This combo, I don’t mind at all. Very good!
- HOTATE (Sea Scallop) – THANK YOU for giving me something nice and simple! Very decent cut of HOTATE, very firm, and great hint of sea, and sweetness.
- SHIMA AJI (Striped Jack) – Of the 15 servings thus far, this was my third serving of SHIMA AJI, which I think is a bit much. First one being fully cooked, thus a complete flop, the second was raw, and with slice of plum topping that was odd, but not bad, and now the third, also raw with toasted banana pepper topping, which again, is different, interesting, haven’t figured out how I feel about it…
- UNI from Santa Barbara – Simplicity is bliss. Thus far, I really can’t say there’s been one bad or unfresh fish, poor combos, yes, but fish alone, no. This was a GOOD Santa Barbara UNI, which is quite hard to come by these days. Rich, nutty, creamy UNI!
- NEGITORO Handroll – Wrapping up on a high note. High quality TORO chopped, and combined with scallions, a lovely end.