Wasabi notes

Photo by Francine Nasaruddin

One of the dubious blessings of having the Culture Vulture World Headquarters kitchen torn apart for so long is that it has given us ample excuse to explore the myriad culinary options available in our town. To paraphrase that estimable pioneer of the palate, Tom Waits, we have wined, dined, sipped and supped at most of the affordable dining establishments in the greater Chico area.

We’ve had gravy-smothered chicken-fried steak at Jack’s. We’ve had pastrami sandwiches and salads at the Hideaway. We’ve had barbecued ribs from the butcher shop at S&S Produce. We’ve had walnut prawns from Turandot. We’ve had self-service organic greens at Grilla Bites.

But what we’ve had more consistently, than any other form of cuisine is sushi. For a light evening meal, nothing beats a few slices of fresh raw fish, some fragrant seaweed, a bit of sticky rice and a combination of wasabi and soy sauce.

Wasabi is the key sushi ingredient. Properly mixed with a dash of soy sauce and perhaps a few drops of sake and a tiny drizzle of Japanese beer, the little velvety green mound of exotic horseradish becomes a thick brown sauce that on first bite will light up every nerve ending in your sinuses with a rush of exquisite pleasure/pain worthy of the Marquis de Sade. More subtle than palate-searing hot peppers, wasabi, because the strength of its delivery is controlled by the consumer, provides a kinder, gentler version of the burn craved by spice lovers.

An added benefit of wasabi is that no matter how strong one mixes it, the burn fades smoothly away in a minute or so, leaving tongue and lips free of the tenderness that can result from over-zealous pepper consumption.

Another enjoyable aspect of the sushi experience is watching the chefs at work. The gleaming knife slices tuna filets with the precision of a surgeon; nimble fingers roll nori (seaweed), rice and fish or veggies into cylinders that are in turn sliced into smaller bite-sized cylinders, every movement choreographed to soft background music.

Unless, that is, you are lucky enough to have shown up at Gen Kai on a night when Mike Newman, tenor sax, Shigemi Minetaka, piano, and Christine Lapado, bass, are providing a live soundtrack to your sushi experience.

As a general rule Culture Vulture prefers to do without live music while trying to eat dinner and converse with the lovely I. Daphne St. Brie. But in the case of this fine jazz trio I’m happy to grant an exception to that rule.

Because through them I discovered that the shimmering improvizations of jazz piano are wonderfully suited to providing a soundtrack for bustling sushi chefs, and that the soft smoothness of the big round jazz bass notes is a perfect complement to the creamy, melt-in-your-mouth lusciousness of a tuna and avocado roll, and that a saxophone is like musical wasabi—even if it gets a bit overbearing at times it soon settles down and provides a spicy complement to the other, softer flavors.