Sensuous Tuna Sashimi and Exceptional Rice Make Sushi-A-Go-Go a Lincoln Center Oasis

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The food-critic version of the music-critic game "desert island discs" goes like this: What if you had to eat only one cuisine for the rest of your life? You'd be outfitted with a chef skilled in the tradition of your choice, who'd prepare every meal from your next until your last. He or she would be excellent, and able to instantly procure any fresh ingredients your cuisine requires. But this chef would also be incapable of any sort of fusion. There can be no Mexican pizza, French-Vietnamese or pan-anything. No innovations that became trendy in the last decade. The choice is among competing traditions.

If neither health nor gastrointestinal limitations were issues, most Americans of taste would probably choose French. But with eating, those two are always relevant, so French cuisine's variety and genius must be weighed against all that butter and cream. Personally, I'd perish within a month. My selection would be "Mediterranean" if that weren't a "pan-," but wouldn't it be nicer than Italian, Spanish or Greek alone? This game is really only for fully assimilated Americans, as it'd probably pose no challenge to people who grew up eating, say, Brazilian tropical-fruit breakfasts, or spicy Korean soul food.

India's and China's cooking traditions are as varied and perfected-over-the-course-of-centuries as France's, yet not as heavy. Between those two the choice comes down, as the game inevitably does, to imagining which would seem less tiresome 10 or 20 years from now. I suspect that all of the Asian options might threaten monotony from the point of view of Euro-descended Americans. But when the essential conundrum over tedium comes up, I'm always inspired to seriously consider Japanese. An odd choice for a (so far as I know) Westerner, because so much of the culture remains foreign or bizarre to even the most curious outsiders, Japanese food is, mysteriously, the one kind I am always ready to eat.

Soba for lunch, sushi for dinner, forever. Does that sound crazy? Perhaps, though I would like to mount a supporting argument. It's got three main points: simplicity, quality and well-being. (A) Japanese food's principal flavors are unadulterated, and the cuisine's emphasis on elegant presentation highlights purity in a way that elevates dining to the level of religious ritual. And for believers, religious rituals only get more satisfying with repetition. (B) It's easy to be a believer when a Japanese chef is working with fresh ingredients, whose scarcity in old Japan explains their worshipful treatment today. (C) Low in fat, almost devoid of grease, yet rich in the blessings of human endeavor and nature, Japanese food seems to harmonize with the inner workings of human bodies. Strange as it may seem, yours would probably run better on raw fish than on grilled chicken. Mine does, anyway.

Now we'll move on to a much easier question: Where should one dine when visiting Lincoln Center? It's a sorry New Yorker who doesn't make it up there now and then, and the dining industry built around the stately event halls is pretty sorry itself. Across Broadway from Lincoln Center are two solid blocks of very large and periodically ultra-busy restaurants, expert at frantically shoveling out passable cafeteria fare at fine-dining prices. Up on W. 70th St. is an appealing bistro alternative, the McNally-founded Cafe Luxembourg?also pricey, and no good for walk-ins. Sushi A-Go-Go arrived on this scene six months ago. Inconspicuously squeezed into the primary preshow dining block, between Fiorello's and Josephina, it's in some ways an oasis of serenity.

In another, more obvious, way, it's not. Sushi A-Go-Go's cash register and host's stand are contained in a black go-go cage. I thought it was supposed to be a gargantuan canary cage until I remembered the restaurant's name. I don't think there are any other specific go-go references, although what sounded like a compilation of Henry Mancini soundtrack tunes was playing when we visited, and that might count.

The entire north wall of the little room (it seats about 40, plus a few more at the sushi bar) is completely covered with shiny silver and green tags, like reflective dog tags, each held in place with a single nail, so they teeter a bit and glimmer. On the same wall are several cartoon daisy decorations, several feet across and bright yellow. You actually notice all this before you get a good look at the cage, which is too big to process in the doorway, from up close. Sushi A-Go-Go's chairs are molded plastic, the same yellow as the daisies, and a little more comfortable than they look.

Whether mildly amusing or mildly irritating, the decor is in keeping with the informality and pace a pre- or post-event meal demands. There are more than enough paper-screen sushi joints in New York, and Sushi A-Go-Go's take on the hip sensibilities of Japanese culture serves to illustrate the surprising versatility of the cuisine. What I know about Japan and its people includes more than one irreconcilable paradox. An emphasis on decorum that doesn't apply to soused businessmen is one that comes to mind. (In the Japan episode of Anthony Bourdain's new Food Network show, the celebrity chef glossed over the contradictions. His text went on about the respect for fish displayed in Tokyo's market, while the image featured a tuna salesman smoking a cigarette while carving out the precious belly meat.) The combination of exquisite traditional recipes in a lighthearted, cost-cutting setting, however, is not one I need explained.

A diner preparing to take in a symphony or opera could do worse than sticking to Sushi A-Go-Go's selection of rolls. The restaurant's seasoned rice is up to par with that of the city's best midprice sushi purveyors, and makes for a maki that could compete at the highest levels. Sushi A-Go-Go's rolls are not so large that they're unwieldy, yet better suited for two bites than one, and dense enough to maintain structural integrity after being halved by the first. Savor the interplay of sugar, salt and vinegar (plus sesame seeds or fish eggs sometimes) in every ring of rice before applying soy sauce or zeroing in on what it encircles. As appreciated as sushi is in New York, it'd be even more so if there were more recognition of the subtle wonders of sushi rice, which takes hours to prepare, and restaurants' humble suggestion that patrons restrict soy sauce usage to the fish.

Speaking of which. An Upper-West-Side engagement found us at Sushi A-Go-Go on a Sunday night?well known to be the worst of the week for sushi, because no one delivers fresh fish Sunday mornings. This toughest of tests the restaurant passed easily, as if secretly prepared. Sushi A-Go-Go's tuna sashimi, in fact, aced it. A firm, blood-red prism of fibrous, lively protein, it rated top marks for both consistency and flavor. That rare duality was provided less spectacularly by the tuna nigiri (regular fish-on-riceball sushi), though a spicy-tuna maki was the runaway champ in its category, too. Whether Sushi A-Go-Go is a tuna specialist or we just got lucky with exceptional specimens (part of the fun of eating sushi every day would be that every fish is different), their peppery mayo is certainly mixed for fishes of distinction.

Our sushi and sashimi platter for two came with four delicate slabs of that sensuous tuna sashimi. The formidable round plate's other surprise was a mackerel sashimi without the slightest tinge of aged fishiness. I love mackerel better than such a fatty, oily animal probably deserves. A friend who fishes once told me it starts to spoil before the boat gets to shore, which I believe explains the limited knowledge of this plentiful fish's nobility. To me it's the rice-and-beans of fish, and Sushi A-Go-Go's stout sashimi conveyed that sense of homey sustenance well.

We appreciated the manageable, balanced proportions of our salmon, yellowtail and fluke nigiri pieces. The latter two were unremarkable, except for the amount of gristle in the fluke, which is, sadly, a filler-whitefish norm. Yellowtail sashimi was better, clean as spring water, but not tasty enough. But for the rice and the tuna, I'd be unable to recommend Sushi A-Go-Go, because yellowtail, as the preferred sushi of many American connoisseurs (in Japan, tuna is Lord), is important. Salmon, another Yankee favorite, was an even bigger disappointment after Sushi A-Go-Go's red meat. It had the lithe texture, but was so flavorless that if it weren't orange, I might not have been able to guess what it was. Could well have been just a Sunday thing.

The cold night we visited found many patrons huddled over steaming bowls of noodles, meat and vegetables. Sushi A-Go-Go's menu also includes an array of non-Japanese baked desserts for after the show, and a list of bento boxes for lunch. The sake list has length and depth. Yet another special feature of the menu is an unusually user-friendly array of sushi platters for under $20, including the Go-Go?two salmon, two tuna, one yellowtail, two eel and a spicy-tuna roll ($18.50), and the Superroll Combination?one eel-cucumber, one yellowtail, one tuna ($14.50). A la carte nigiri and maki is $2.50-$5.50 for the standards, $6 for toro. The abundant sushi and sashimi platter for two was $38.

Our platter's assembler assumed a gameness regarding raw shellfish that I was pleased to verify, enjoying sashimi sliced octopus and a trio of sweet shrimp. In the versions served in the master-sushi realm these uncooked morsels will occupy your tastebuds for a week. Here they were mild, moderately challenging and a bit fun. Maybe it's the cultured presence of Lincoln Center that makes Sushi A-Go-Go such a smooth dealer of delicacies. There's always something awakening about sushi, and here, amidst shimmering walls and a kind, fashionable staff, that alertness is not countered by the soporific trappings of exotic dining. As is the case with visits to Fisher, Tully and the rest, when you dine near Lincoln Center, you either bring your own capacity for enlightenment or you simply pay full price to take a nap.

Sushi A-Go-Go, 1900 Broadway (betw. 63rd & 64th Sts.), 724-7340.

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