Sushi and I had a falling out recently, and I know exactly how it happened. On too many nights, choosing episodes of Iron Chef over training in my kitchen, I succumbed to that paradox in take-out: tight cross-sections of rolled nori and rice glowing under transparent lids in the supermarket deli. Yes, real Japanese cooks generally stock those cases; yes, it's less humiliating than the freezer aisle. But reducing the sushi experience to childproof packets of Kikkoman and disposable plates is to render it as unceremonious as the rotisserie chicken sagging in its skin nearby. Simply put, I got bored on supermarket sushi. Then, I forget about sushi altogether. That is, until a new Japanese restaurant coaxed me outside the clear plastic box.
It's blasphemy to stretch the word "sushi" around most of Horinoya's substantial Japanese menu, but we do. Like sushi Chef-owner Komei Horimoto says, it's because of American customers that most of his "sushi" business comes in rice-fattened rolls (Japanese people, he says, prefer to eat mostly unadorned, raw fish). This does seem a travesty once you're faced with Horimoto's pristine ribbons of toro (tuna) arching effortlessly over pinches of wasabi-smeared rice. But it wasn't the toro -- or the pleasing rolls of sweet scallop the texture of half-firmed gelatin -- that first aroused my sleepy palate.
In an unlikely downtown location between two commercial parking lots on Poydras Street, Horinoya ("noya" is Japanese for "house"; thus, "Horimoto's House") is a long, sleek room of ceramic tableware, blond wood and ambient lighting. Part Zen, part feng shui and part Pottery Barn, the space parallels Horimoto's meticulously aesthetic food presentations. Small garnishes add extra color and personality to his offerings: pinches of yellow mustard, buttons of ground red pepper, wispy scatterings of seaweed and animal shapes carved from lemons and tomatoes.
Following the dulling supermarket lesson, I was taken most by Horinoya's unexpected menu items. For example, the riceless roll of salmon and whitefish sliced thin as Ritz crackers and wrapped in hot pink soybean paper with avocado and radish sprouts; the starchy udon noodles that slithered through golden miso broth with tempura-fried vegetables and shrimp; the white toothpicks of Japanese yam (yamaimo sengiri) that crunched with sterile moisture like unsweetened jicama, and the sundae (anmitsu) of stretchy vanilla ice cream, honey, sweet red bean paste and cubes of see-through jelly.
Never mind that few of these tidbits were raw fish. My Japanese server gave an excited hop when I asked for steamed monkfish liver (ankimo). The beige and muddy orange segments rested on cucumber threads in a tangy, soy-based ponzu sauce. Sometimes referred to as Japanese foie gras, the pate-like delicacy tasted incredibly like a liver that had filtered nothing for years but clean, slightly smoky seawater.
The same server nodded obligingly when she delivered a fatty piece of sake-tinged black cod (tarakasuzuke) -- another gift of flavor. Creamy flesh tore from the broiled steak in flakes that smacked of baked butter like fresh brioche. The charred black band of its elastic skin chewed like sea-soaked bacon. When I asked about another non-sushi item hidden on the menu's back page, her polite response ("Japanese people eat a lot") implied that Americans don't often order bowls of green tea poured over rice. On the contrary, my American tablemates and I returned continually to the palate-cleansing elixir (ume cha) steeped with salty plum and seaweed.
I also ate a lot at Horinoya. Come prepared to rack up a tab picking and choosing from the grand menus of both sushi and Japanese specialties; exceptional quality in food and sincere service are the return.
Although I was fascinated by the most unusual items on Horinoya's menu, I did find challenge in the rough, raw beef texture of kampachi (a Japanese fish similar to amberjack). My standby barbecue eel, however, collapsed beautifully onto clingy rice like braised ribs. Even the most pedestrian palates -- unwilling to risk a meal on raw red clams -- won't go hungry. A deep-fried pork cutlet (tonkatsu) with sweet-and-sour sauce bore striking resemblance to a Chicken McNugget dinner. Spicy tempura shrimp were kin to Rally's spicy fries, and moist, skewered chicken glazed with teriyaki sauce was benign enough for infants.
Horimoto, who split with his partner at Little Tokyo on St. Charles Avenue and opened Horinoya last January, watches everything from his perch behind the sushi bar. Conventioneers file past to private back rooms, where they slip out of shoes and onto the floor for interactive sukiyaki lunches. Dutch travelers bite hard into purple-ringed octopus disks in a vinegary salad (sunomono) for the first time and chew on it like licorice. Evenings, the crowd thins to mostly locals lingering over bottles of warm sake and Sapporo.
You can order almost anything from Horinoya's bar, although the only thing better than pickled ginger between bites of raw fish and wasabi is a sip of green tea. That earthy potion poured endlessly from hot silver kettles is another argument against selling out at the supermarket.