PUT A EGG ON IT: ISSUE 13
FOOD FOR LONGING by AVA BERLIN
In 2006, I live in a small apartment in San Francisco. At four o’clock every afternoon, mist and chill rolls across the entire city from left to right with no compromise to the season or mood of the day. At six o’clock every evening, I wind my way through the fog up the same steep hill after work, reaching my gated door then climbing four damp and creaky flights of stairs that have been there for ninety years. The neighborhood has no name yet is still red-lined, which means that no ATMs can be found, and It’s not uncommon to see a new memorial sprout up every few months. These memorials are usually affixed, with no irony, to stop signs. They are built with Santeria candles now extinguished, supermarket flowers wrapped in clear cellophane, and paper notes, wet from the air and blurry with colorful ink. Two blocks away from a memorial is where I find family for a few years.
Sebo is a small Japanese restaurant sandwiched between two larger buildings, the entrance isn’t flashy and greenish paper blinds conceal most of the interior but warmth still spills out through slits on either side of the window coverings. Sebo would become wildly popular but right now goes unnoticed by most passersby. The door is unexpectedly propped open one night and I follow my feet inside without thinking. The dimly lit room is empty of people aside from me and two men behind the counter wearing inky black t-shirts and dark aprons. I’m wind-blown and while I catch my breath and my nose runs a little we stand and look at one another silently until they invite me in.
Michael Black’s Sebo has a 6-person counter and half a dozen tables. The menu is a simple single page printed with the date at the top. I ask for the little maguro maki. This small plate teaches me that portion will have no bearing on my experience here. Michael places the rectangular plate in front of me and I approach it as carefully as he set it down. The warmth and stickiness of the rice belies the crispiness of the nori which melts when it comes in contact with my tongue. The zest of the lemon lifts everything out of the ocean and onto land. Then the rock salt waits in the wings like a cymbalist in an orchestra who stands, holding his cymbals for the entire symphony waiting for his one shot. When the salt mixes with the maguro it’s a swan dive back into the cold Sea of Japan. There are six of these little roller coasters on my plate and I’m captivated. I’d walked in feeling shy but what I ate aroused me and woke me up.
A few months later, I meet Jeffrey and over the next ten years he will become my husband, then my ex-husband and finally, my confidant. We spend countless nights closing down Sebo, drinking shōchū, smoking hash and sharing izakaya. On these nights, I feel like I am simultaneously escaping and coming home.
If you want to make an excellent friend, make them great food and ask them to tell you their stories. Michael is genuinely curious about other people and also a great teacher. He teaches us how to prepare rice at home using a simple Zojirushi rice maker and how to make Okinawan goya chanpuru. When Jeffrey and I separate, he gives me the rice maker. Goya chanpuru is now a comfort food in my kitchen and sometimes a cure for longing. It evokes the same epicurean warmth that filled my belly when we used to stumble home to the small apartment at two in the morning, sated and buzzing and grasping each other.
It’s Sunday night and I’m standing outside of Clown Bar in the 11th arrondissement of Paris alone. My friend, Miche, called it a night early, neglecting that I’ve already taken a cab across town to meet her. Looking inside, I see that a lonely stool goes unused amidst the crowd in the bar because everyone seems to be in pairs or groups. The stool looks back at me inviting me to come in, out of the mist, so I do. The bar is packed with restaurant industry which are a life-affirming breed unto their own. The room is jovial and people are jostling around each other in an unbothered way. After a drink, an animated sommelier notices me and announces, “You’re sitting next to a great chef! You should talk to him!” I look to my right and perched on the barstool sits a young, slender Japanese man with large eyes like dark pools filled with stories and hair falling into them. We’re both tall and thin and dressed in black though neither of us is fluent in the same language. We manage to stir up a conversation from his broken english, my broken french and the unexpected discovery that we share a mutual love of early Chicago House music.
After a few larger than average glasses of wine, he scribbles the address of his restaurant on a piece of paper, folds it, and slides it across the bar as an invitation to lunch. It’s my last day in Paris tomorrow and I’m reluctant to hand the afternoon over to a stranger. The sommelier has been eavesdropping shamelessly and can sense my hesitation, so he chimes in, “Trust him!” I heed his advice and the next day I cross into the Latin Quarter with the note unfolded between my fingers, searching for a sign above a door that reads “A.T.” I push the door open and quickly learn that the small staff has been informed of my arrival.
Atsushi Tanaka is Japanese, but his cuisine is influenced by four or five other European countries. His most important influence though seems to stem from a hidden desire and it infuses each dish he crafts with a kind of heady rush that goes beyond the five senses.
I become keenly aware of the control and consideration within the restaurant. Every texture, aroma and visual angle has been evaluated down to the fragrance of the hand soap in the bathroom. I become self conscious of lint on my black sweater and chips in my nail polish which I hadn’t noticed before I walked in however, my solemnity and shyness is distracted by the flavor of smoldering affection when the prix fixe begins.
Here, you eat twice. First, with your eyes, in a visually arresting experience of color and inventive geometric form. Each plate is a lens peering into an infinite culinary kaleidoscope and you’re observing the esculent cinematography of a man who is singular of purpose. You have the impression that if you opened his head and peered inside his mind you would see a tiny pressured kitchen laboratory, endlessly experimenting. I wonder how many little failures have occurred there for such precision to appear so effortless on the table.
I don’t live in Paris so my relationship to his food and understanding of his art comes through our interactions over the next several years. His consistency and focus never diminish and I can always imagine the lively kitchen laboratory in his mind, clanging away day and night over the synth beats and percussive arrangements of Frankie Knuckles, “Whistle Song” or Donna Summer, “I Feel Love”.
It’s a windy night in Miami and I’m following trusted but mysterious instructions for a late night meal. I take a taxi twenty winding minutes from my downtown hotel to a small street with chain link fence bordering a little field of tallish grasses. The field is pitch black other than a truck, brightly lit from the inside, serving omakase at a makeshift counter. There are no other guests, just a young woman who offers a choice of beer or water from an ice bucket and, behind the counter, Ryo Kato. I have a light but drawn out meal and Ryo and I banter about not much of anything until enough friendly syllables have been exchanged that each of us is able to recognize the other. Only then, I ask him where to eat that he believes I can’t find anywhere but Miami. He pauses, his eyes narrow and he looks around as if to see if anyone is listening. He leans forward and says in a deep voice, “Naoe”. My heart beats faster.
The next morning I leave a voicemail requesting a reservation but learn that they don’t come easy. After a few days, and a few prayers, a spot opens up. I leap at it and draw plans to visit the Florida Key where it’s situated.
Naoe has two seatings per night. Each seating is for only eight people however when you walk in, it appears there are thirty or more places prepared. You’re invited to select your seat, any open seat, and once all eight have found their comfortable spots the remaining place settings are soundlessly cleared. `The room gives the impression of having a stillness about it but that’s not the case at all. On closer inspection, everything is vibrating.
The itamae is Kevin Cory and I’m seated in front of him. He delicately holds up a ceramic plate and explains that the dishes are served on Rosanjin pottery, made in his home town in Japan. “There”, he continues, “children grow up with an understanding of the four complete seasons.” Nature is valued as a source of life and that understanding is reflected in the themes of the plates. ”Camellias appear in Spring, Summer brings fish, pampas grass sways in Autumn, and snow blankets Winter.”1 At Naoe, the seasons are honored but there is no sense of time here.
Kevin is young but when he’s preparing a meal, his back bends like a old, old man allowing only inches between his eyes and his hands and what they’re creating. This omakase begins, unusually, with a bento box. You eat without fear, or guilt or really much awareness of a world outside of this one. The omakase then moves to pieces of nigiri, marched out one by one like entrancing, unfinished stories by Sheherazade. I’m watching Kevin, hunched over, and he’s up to something but I can’t tell what exactly. The third piece of nigiri is placed in front of me as a smile spreads across my face. I’ve had this feeling before, one hot summer in the East Village sharing a carefree bed in a rented apartment with no air conditioning. Drifting into sleep with no care in the world after a sweaty afternoon and a cool breeze coming from an oscillating fan. At Naoe, it seems our fond or secret memories are woven into the meal. For me, it was a New York Summer. For the woman next to me, it was her childhood in Japan.
1. From Robert Yellin, Rosanjin Kitaoji: Mountain Man Who Walked the Path of Art. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2003/02/12/arts/mountain-man-who-walked-the-path-of-art/#.V5Yv65MrL2J