This is a story about friends and fresh fish, two things that can never be overvalued.
Sushi is a food that can be enjoyed alone: it’s subtle and supple and there are few better treats than to sit than at a nice (not cult) sushi bar, where the chef feeds you delicacies while you read The New Yorker and sip green tea. (Is this rude to the chef? Maybe, but I ignorantly did it many times in my early 20s.) But, sushi has grown up with me, and as it grew, so did I and my friends, and together we explored, spurring each other on. You can hold hands as you jump off the cliff…
When I was younger, one of my closest friends and my partner in many an escapade was a kind, thoughtful girl named Serena. She and her family lived not too far from us- nearly walking distance- and though there was only one more of them than of us, since the youngest two were boys, they seemed to take up much more room than we did. Her parents had a much higher tolerance for noise and wildness and general mayhem, which translates, when you are a child, to fun. No one was afraid of making a mess.
Their house was heaven to me. In the summer, there was one of those trapezes hung between two solid oak trees on a slope that sent you flying on a wire down a hill, your legs tucked to your chest. They also had their very own tetherball court. There were long bike rides down the closed Saw Mill Parkway and hikes up through Pocantico Hills. Once I was part a foray, with a group of other friends, to the mother’s mother’s ancient place near the water in a highly gated part of the Connecticut coast, where we road bikes and swam in the sound, and poked around in the weeds. That was summering!
In the winter, when the fire crackled in the fire place and the snow piled up outside, filling the house with a muted light, there were cookies to bake, and a giant Christmas tree hung with tinsel and ornaments and candy canes, and which I was allowed to help decorate to my never ending delight, since as devoutly un-devout Jews, we didn’t do Christmas trees at my house. And there was ice skating on the pond on the golf course, pick up hockey games of girls vs. boys, brawls on sleds careening down hills and sometimes into trees, cross country skiing… I slept over a lot, collapsing where I landed, whether it whichever room Serena was claiming for herself, or one of the den’s couches, or on the floor in a sleeping bag. I don’t think I ever slept better in a place that wasn’t my own home. Once we snuck out into a deeply snowy night, just to walk around in the silence…
Serena and I had fun. She was daring in a very quiet way, the sort of person who makes no announcement about her intentions, the sort of person who just does things, bold things, like dye her hair, or go backpacking by herself. Together we explored New York City, going to the Guggenheim and the Met, and then later, heading downtown. We ate at diners and tried on vintage velvet vests. We carried our money close in our wallets and were afraid when we were lost, which was often. Notoriously, she was with me when I got caught going to the Village in the Ninth grade. My parents had expressly forbidden me from ever going below 42nd street and Grand Central Station, but Serena, whose grandmother lived in the city, had no such rules, and I was happy to disobey, for we had done it many times before, and it happened to be a perfect cool-sunny fall day. I made sure to buy things from places that had uptown branches. Serena slept over and at dinner that night at dinner my parents were none the wiser.
And then, the next day, my dad ran into Serena’s dad on the train. Oh yes, they were train buddies and still are.
“I hear Michelle and Serena had a lovely time on Saturday…” Dr. Allen told my dad, in his soft, kind voice.
“Yes!” My dad said. “We love having Serena. She’s a delight!”
“I hear they went down to the village, shopping…” Dr. Allen said, smiling as he does.
“They? Did? WHAT?”
I wasn’t allowed back to the city for quite some time. (Later, I would live there, in “The Village.” I guess I still do.)
And, when we were old enough to go to dinner together, just us or with other friends, we liked to go out for sushi.
This was in the early days of the sushi, before the era of cult chefs and disco lighting and saketinis, when it had only just begun its blond-wood spread to suburbia and all of it was exciting and new, from the green tea and the little hot clothes, to the miso soup and to the California rolls. California Rolls had no stigma as “beginners sushi”, because we were all beginners, and crabstick was as new to us as unagi or uni for that matter. Actually, we never would have eaten uni… that was beyond our ken. And at that time, the possibly the chef’s.
Not really knowing what get, we usually left our decisions to that chef, and ordered the house sushi platter, six pieces, usually involving fat salmon, hot pink tuna from god knows where, octopus, surprisingly hard before it was chewy and nicely lemony, if it was good, rubbery if it was bad, eel which seemed a gyp because it was so obviously cooked, some sort of white fish that was bland and nice, and yellow tail with its hint of real fishiness, plus a California Roll. We loved it! Each bite was a foray someplace far away and exotic. We loved the green tea and the calm ambience. We loved the hot towels. We felt sophisticated and knowing, and, thanks to our other good friend who was Korean, we were both pretty handy with chopsticks. Sometimes we also got tempura. Oh it was good! And the waitresses were kind, in that small bright room in the strip mall in Elmsford or Pleasantville, or wherever it was convenient for our parents to drop us. A few times, we went to an all you can eat place on the Upper East Side, and that was great, for we ate our fill, which we never could with the six piece platter. For dessert there was always green tea ice cream, exotically sour-sweet-creamy and ever so slightly gritty.
In the tenth grade, I was friendless. Serena and I will still good friends, but I started going to private school, in the Bronx. One of the first people to pay any mind to me, the winter of that lonely, fascinating year, was a girl a year older, who was amazingly funny and bold in a different way from Serena. Jen was more the announcing type, but unlike most announcers, once she said it, she often did do it, or it had already been done, whatever it was; chopping her hair off, going on a date with the gorgeous 20 year old guy that worked at the skateboard shop in SoHo, bumming a cigarette off a cute stranger in Central Park and then sitting and talking to him for hours… she was fearless and daring in the extreme. She, for some reason, took a liking to mousy me, and swept me under her wing, for which I was grateful, since she was a real deal city kid. She let me sleep over and we got stoned on her roof and hung out in the Meadow and talked to boys… When I made a fool of myself by announcing my enormous crush on a popular boy to that popular boy, she didn’t laugh in my wretched aftermath. She consoled me and took me seriously. At lunch, at school, together, we would go “down the hill.”
One of the highlights of the school was that there was an open campus policy for all high school students. There were four real places to go “down the hill.” (I’m not sure why I feel the need to put quotation marks around that phrase, because it was literally down the hill that we went… and so the reference is accurate.) One was Burger King. Fine. Two were places you needed to drive to- the Riverdale Diner, and Sal’s I think it was called, one of those great old school Italian deli style places were you could get a dense pile of cheesy ziti for about four bucks or a fresh mozzarella sandwich… And then, there was this sushi place. Most kids at my school avoided it, for they had a not unreasonable interest in their own health, but Jen and I frequented it. There was a lunch special, and for 9.99 you could get two rolls, a salad, a miso soup, and a green tea. We could just sneak it in in a 50 minute period.
We went as much as we could- it was “our” place- though sometimes other friends joined us. I think before Jen and I were close, I had coaxed others down, and it wasn’t as much to their liking. And maybe I wasn’t either. But Jen and I went, and she told me things, all the things no one else told me: about people we went to school with, and places she had been and thing she had done. With her clear voice and sharp laugh and confident intelligence, she told me these things, and I sponged it all up, as I dunked my California roll into the dark salty soy sauce, and soon her friends were my friends too. We didn’t mind the leathery seaweed or the dark damp room or the surly waitress… I never didn’t worry about getting sick after eating there, and yet I never did.
I grew bolder.
By the time I was a young adult, working in TV production, I loved all sushi, and would basically try anything. Alone I went here and there… A friend introduced me to the pleasure of Yama and it’s amazing slabs of sashimi while I was in college. In London I ate sushi off a conveyor belt and tried all manner of things. And then I became friends with Stu.
He, too, would eat basically any raw fish. He was (is) a professional writer, which was an occupation I knew existed, but could not fathom. People were (are?!) lucky enough to write things and get paid? This was extraordinary. And he was fun and funny to boot. He was a screenwriter, who I met along with his equally charming writing partner, when they were both my bosses on a TV show. The two of them were like professional beacons to me, lighting a path on the vast sign-less Career Sea…
Together, on random weeknights, we ate our way through the menu at Yama on Carmine Street (RIP!), some weird little spot on Clinton street, that for a shining moment was amazing, the nice little two story place that used to be on Greenwich Ave, Blue Ribbon and so many others… we sampled scallops and sweet shrimp, mackerel and more. The only thing we disagreed on was Salmon, which Stu swore (and swears) belongs only on a bagel. And he told me things too, all manner of professional things, and I sponged, as he confided in me about talks and fights with the network, a particularly surly show runner, his agent, a producer, collaborations with people I read only ever read about…
I was dubbing casting tapes for reality shows. But for an hour or two over milky sake and weird raw things, I could see a different way… to a creative life and all its attendant sturms und drangs. It was possible, because here it was, personified. I dreamt of the day I would have to deal with network notes, and how. He taught me how to stand up for your point of view… how to fight with MY agent. (That hasn’t happened… yet. I was only ever dumped by one…maybe two… so, I’ve never yet got to the fighting point…only the bereft “what is wrong with me?” point. It’s all been my own fault- I was overeager and under-seasoned.) Someday I too would get a happy phone call… despite, or because, of his frustrations, I so yearned to grow in that direction. I still do!
Stu likes to have ideas. And so do I. Once, we decided it would be fun to make our own sushi for our annual Oscar viewing. I don’t know how I got suckered into doing all the shopping… oh wait, I volunteered, towing along my grumbling husband. We bought everything we’d need.
And yet, even in the rice cooker, we fucked up the rice. It was not good. Our loving significant others ate it anyway and thank god for the frozen shumai and gyoza, which came out fine. (Lifesavers!)
It’s funny how three people so unlike a gentle Serena, provocative Jen and open Stu, can have been so similar. All three who knew a lot about things I knew nothing about, and were willing to share, who didn’t mind a little risk in search of something interesting and new…
Hokey? Yes. I have a large strain of sentimentality… But true.
My Favorite Sushi Places
Many of the places I used to frequent ten years ago are now closed, but here are a few that do remain. The dingy sushi place we went to in high school is no longer there- I know, because I checked on Google Maps.
1) Kanoyama– this is my favorite sushi place in all of NYC. It is sparkling fresh, with lots of interesting unusual Japanese imports and totally unassuming. Let’s put it this way: Rob and I once sat next to Iron Chef Morimoto there. Yeah…
2) Zutto Sushi– Nothing fancy. This is a great lunch choice. Very classic, with lunch specials. Good tempura too.
3) Yama Carmine Street- Ugh- just found out this is closed! I am bereft, for this was a standby. And I used to live across the street… sad!
4) Blue Ribbon Sullivan Street- this is the “nicest” place on the list, but still pretty old school. I prefer these kind of traditional places, maybe because they are better versions of the ones Serena and I went to. No nightclub music or model waitresses, thanks.
5) Ushiwakamaru- We only went here once, but I remember how good it is and I think there’s a secret ramen place in the later hours. But worth trying on its own.
6) Sharaku- This place is a place I still go to alone once in a while. It’s… pretty good! And inexpensive. It’s always filled with Japanese kids, and NYU professors. I wouldn’t seek it out, and yet, I’ll still go. Hasaki, next door, is much better, but I hardly go there.