On the sort of whim we yield to far too often given the shape of our wallets, the Director & I snuck into the Den looking for a quick fix before the rockin’ Calexico show a couple of weeks ago. I’d just read on Cafe Society that chef Gabe Stallone had had a rather spectacular falling out with the owner; having once happened to hear the former insist on the down-low that some of the creations the latter apparently takes credit for were really his, that much came as no surprise to me, but what remained to be determined was the extent to which his brawn, brains aside, defined the operation. Would there be a marked difference in quality for better or worse? Often as I find myself at its altar, I tend to stop short of the worship the Den is largely shown; it could, I figured, go either way.
But it didn’t. Neither in the kitchen nor behind the sushi bar was the drama still being played out, & the execution was as smooth as ever, which is to say fairly but not uniformly.
For instance, the much-touted “fresh Japanese wasabi sashimi”—namely hamachi, aka amberjack or yellowtail, not to be confused with yellowfin, which is tuna, nor with an apricot blossom, which is what it evokes from its pale-pink hue to its silky texture to its virtually fruity savor—remains a wonder laid over a light marinade (I’m guessing mainly shoyu & rice-wine vinegar), although as the line between admirable shows of restraint & ripoffs goes, I’d rather this one were thicker, & that for all the exceeding delicacy of the dish they’d go ahead & double the daub of grated wasabi. Fishwise, mind you, the dish is nearly a steal at $16.50 (a regular 2-piece order of hamachi sashimi, composed of smaller slices of fish, goes for $5.50)—but since it’s the wasabi that gets top billing on the menu, so it’s the wasabi the chefs should be showcasing with a bigger-than-average schmear.
If memory serves (& admittedly, it’s rarely inclined to raise a finger at my bidding, unless you count that 1), the inaugural version of the short ribs—every order has been different—was the best, on the bone & glazed. Ever since, they’ve been a little dryer & tougher. I guess they’ve gone from barbecuing to grilling, & I guess they should go back, is all. But the green beans sizzled with garlic as all god’s creatures should.
The nikumaki may just look like the short ribs got all twisted up with their beans, but no—these asparagus-stuffed tenderloin rolls were super-umami au jus, richly meaty & soy-spiked.
The tsukemono, meanwhile, got me down.
Obviously brined in-house, these slivers of cucumber, radish & carrot constituted a refreshing dressed salad, but I wouldn’t call them fully realized pickles—however embarrassingly glaring the likely fact that the fluorescent, hyperpungent tsukemono I’m hereby privileging
are prepackaged veggie sponges of salt, sugar & artificial coloring may be.
As for the Cajun crawfish roll, it was plenty tasty all topped with jalapeno, green tobikko (flying-fish roe) & sesame seeds, but I wouldn’t have known the batter-fried stuff inside from shrimp or krabstick or piranha. I’m willing to go on record with the claim that tempura maki is a mistake unless the fried item remains in 1 big piece to yield the maximum ratio of meat to batter,
Still & all, the place exudes suave warmth & the promise of sake to wash down that exquisite panzanella with crab, goat cheese, pistachios & plum wine vinaigrette (the camera positively shivers just thinking about it) in addictive measure.
Hence the crack den crack—the cravings we get for the Den’s output aren’t so much euphoric as chronic. We just keep crawling weakly back.