Photos by B.A. Nilsson
The true death of civilization began when food handlers in restaurants were forced to wear plastic gloves. There’s no question that the unclean walk among us and occasionally get their mitts on our grub, but this was yet another example of fear outstripping reason, with the consequence that a vital tactile component of professional cooking was proscribed. And it may be no more deeply realized than at the sushi-assembly level.
A serving of nigiri-sushi is a well-chosen, carefully sized strip of seafood laid across a base of vinegar-piquant rice, and there’s a legend that the finest sushi chefs are able to form that rice so deftly that each and every grain is parallel to its neighbor. How can you do that with gloves on? And I won’t even go into our obsessive de-bacteria-izing of ourselves, except to note that it’s gone too far.
One of the beauties (and there are many) about Unagi Sushi, Troy’s four-month-old, much-needed eatery, is the pristine look of its fish, on display behind the counter at which you’re invited to sit. That right there wins my trust.
And while I usually abjure the annoyance of TV screens in restaurants, the sight of a pair of high-definition monitors, each silently displaying a sports event, flanking the sushi chefs at work was too absurd to condemn. Other screens hang on other walls, but they’re displaying a toothsome slideshow of the restaurant’s menu offerings.
It truly is a sushi-centric menu. Starters can include six pieces of sashimi ($10), sautéed white tuna with a citrus and ginger sauce ($12), tuna tataki with ponzu sauce ($10) or thin-sliced white fish and octopus with red wine vinegar ($12); among the hot appetizers are two pieces of grilled scallop wrapped in bacon ($10), six pieces of deep-fried shrimp dumpling ($5), and the ever-popular gyoza, six pieces of which will set you back five bucks.
Many, many à la carte rolls are on offer, ranging from $5-$10, and the house signature rolls let you indulge the Americanized side of this tradition, with goofy combos like the Godzilla ($18), which is a deep-fried roll with bacon, scallop and asparagus, topped with mango salsa; the Dynamite ($18), containing spicy tuna, yellowtail, avocado, and cream cheese; and the creatively named Don’t Tase Me, Bro! ($16), combining shrimp tempura with broiled eel, the fish that gives this restaurant its name.
My wife is appalled at the thought of consuming raw fish. She believes that those menu warnings about undercooked anything were written especially for her. She’s able to summon an I’ll-go-along-with-it smile when we do so dine, but there’d better be tempura on the menu.
Not here. At least, not as a stand-alone entrée. Don’t Tase Me caught her idea, but she wasn’t prepared to deal with eel. So Susan ordered the Grinch ($18), which promises tempura scallop.
Next time I visit, I’ll summon some well-heeled friends to join me (and pay for me) in an Omakase-style eight-course banquet, a mere $80 per person. Meanwhile, the $24 Unagi Don gives you that pesky broiled eel, the Sake Don ($24) sports 12 pieces of salmon, and the Tuna Don ($24) – well, I don’t have to tell you. And those are all over rice.
I settled for the $24 sushi dinner, a chef’s choice of nine pieces of fish with a spicy tuna roll as well.
This restaurant is the brainchild of chef Andy Dong, who, after moving here from New York City, spent eight years at Hana on Albany’s Western Avenue. While there, he was often asked why he didn’t seek his own establishment, and finally decided to do so – and to do so in Troy, as the restaurant scene has been looking better and better thanks to entrepreneurs like him.
So he’s brought the best of the sushi scene and left the spatula-slinging behind. “Teppanyaki?” he says with a laugh. “That’s not food.”
Four months were needed to convert a former hair salon into the smart-looking eatery it’s become, with a row of black tables and chairs of red and white, the aforementioned counter seating, and a couple of tables in the windows with a view of 4th Street.
We were graciously welcomed and seated and, once we’d ordered, served a complimentary starter of escolar (white tuna) with citrus and ginger sauce, garnished with tomatoes and onions – one of Dong’s own creations, he explained.
The fish is lightly cooked, so it was enough to get by Susan’s resistance. And she confessed that the sushi assembly taking shape at the counter nearby was so stunning looking, graced as it was with a goblet of flowers, that she almost wished it were our order.
As it turned out, it was. Our orders were combined on this plate, and my gorgeous little slabs of salmon and yellowtail and striped bass persuaded her to take a tiny sample. Nestled among them were a couple of pieces of tuna belly, which melts in the mouth like candy.
It was a meal that asked to be savored by all of the senses, the flavors enhanced by a little wasabi here, some soy sauce there, and of course the refreshing pickled ginger.
The only reason we got dessert was because it had the word “tempura” in it. As it applies to ice cream ($4), it too, covers many sensory bases. Put this place on your next-time-I’m-in-Troy list. You’ll thank me.
Dinner for two with tax, tip, an iced tea, and dessert, was $64.
Unagi Sushi, 118 4th Street, Troy, 629-9688, unagitroy.com. Serving Mon-Thu 11-10, Fri-Sat 11-11, Sun noon-9. All major credit cards.