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The sushi chef, his long tapered knife as sharp as a new razor, effortlessly slices through a rectangular slab of ruby-red tuna. Moments later, he takes that strip of ahi in one hand and grabs a clump of sushi rice with the other, coolly and quickly forming the seasoned grains into an oblong base. He caps the rice ball, known as tawara, with the fresh tuna slice and places the finished bite with the others.
I’m standing here at the North Sea Restaurant and Sushi Bar in Adams Morgan (2479 18th St. NW, 202-332-7888), watching chef Jhang Bin put together my lunch-time order of “sushi deluxe,” which includes nigiri pieces of salmon, yellowtail, red snapper, mackerel, barbecue eel, and tuna, not to mention a sectioned California roll stuffed with avocado and crab stick. I’ve witnessed such transfixing displays of sushi craft many times before—but nothing like this one.
Directly in front of me is a cabinet filled with cheap carryout wine and sake. Behind the cabinet is a cooler built into the wall, offering sixers and 24-ounce cans of American lager to go. Above that cooler is a rack packed with Marlboros, Newports, Camels, Kools, even the odd box of Dutch Masters cigars. A flatscreen TV above the cigs broadcasts CNN.
The scene, I’d argue, is ripe with metaphor. It depicts not just a restaurant in transition, but an entire neighborhood.
Though not widely acknowledged because of its lowly takeout status, North Sea is a landmark in Adams Morgan. The Chen family, originally from south China, opened the place 25 years ago, long before the developers and gentrifiers started to remake the neighborhood; North Sea was here when Adams Morgan was still considered a Latino quarter, when dirt-cheap food and beer to go didn’t rub shoulders with million-dollar condos.
If you walk into North Sea today, you experience something like old dope-smoking hippies must feel when they walk down M Street in Georgetown now. Gone is North Sea’s stripped-down, overhead-light, paper-menu aesthetic. It’s been replaced with a faux-opulent, black-lacquered look that was popular, hmm, 20 years ago in Asian restaurants. Little sexy lamps hang low from the ceiling, supplying most of the light, and there’s even a small, seemingly Formica-topped, sushi bar in the corner next to that cabinet of wine and sake.
The menu has been upgraded to reflect North Sea’s new digs. The old Chinese-American staples that fueled the neighborhood for a quarter of a century are still there, but they’ve been relegated to second-class status, much like many of the Central American immigrants who once dominated the ’hood. The young generation of the Chen family, including manager Annie Chen, is playing up the pan-Asian dishes, which wander from pad Thai to Peking duck to the aforementioned sushi. There’s even a metal display case on the sidewalk in front of North Sea—next to the folks waiting for a handout or maybe the bus—advertising the new cuisine.
Annie Chen makes no bones about North Sea’s motivation. “This is Adams Morgan,” she says. “A lot of the rich [people] like Japanese food.” The expanded menu is, quite honestly, a stab to satisfy North Sea’s need for “more, more, more” business, Chen adds.
Chen’s unabashedly pro-capitalism stance is charming. North Sea’s sushi, regrettably, is not. Jhang cuts big, thick slices of fish, which tend to dominate his small, loosely packed balls of under-seasoned rice, leaving your bite all out of a proportion. If the seafood were higher quality, perhaps you might appreciate the extra flesh, but the tuna is meaty without being flavorful, while the mackerel, fishy in the extreme, tastes as if hadn’t been marinated in rice vinegar first. More problematic, Jhang doesn’t apply a single smear of wasabi to the back of his fish toppings (known as tane), which would have (especially) helped balance the oily, fatty flavors of the squishy-soft salmon.
The Asian-fusion concept here, as executed by North Sea’s long-time chef, Chen Bing Kai (cousin to Annie Chen), applies to almost every dish, even those with an established tradition in one culture. Take the pad Thai: It’s a massive pile-up of overly soft rice noodles, eggs, bean sprouts, your choice of protein, and…Thai basil, giving the dish a pleasant, if foreign, hit of licorice.
But to borrow a phrase of long-suffering realists everywhere: It is what it is. North Sea is a Chinese-American takeout trying to evolve with its ever-prosperous neighborhood. Chinese cooks, and the restaurants in which they toil, have a long tradition of adapting their food to American tastes and ingredients. North Sea’s sea change is just the latest iteration of a very old trend. Chen and family may be one step closer to the more traditional cuisines of Asia, but their dishes still cater to the needs of the locals: The prices are modest—my sushi special cost $13—and everything can be packaged for takeout.
Oh, and you can still get a 24-ounce Budweiser to go.
Last week as I was wandering through the makeshift Eastern Market, my stomach empty and my wallet full, I noticed the sign at Canales Deli advertising Iberico de bellota hams. I asked the guy behind the counter what they were asking for the rare jamon.
“One-fifty,” he responded.
Momentarily stunned, I repeated the number: “One hundred and fifty dollars a pound?”
He reassured me that I could buy as little as an eighth of a pound.
“How much would that run me?” I asked.
“About $20,” he said.
So I ordered an eighth of a pound of Iberico de bellota, the highest grade of Iberico ham, given only to those pigs that gain at least a third of their weight from consuming acorns and grasses in the western and southwestern areas of Spain. The slices numbered exactly seven, which came roughly to $2.85 apiece. (Incidentally, the online store La Tienda is selling some leftover, bone-in bellota hams for $1,395, complete with the black hoof, which is unlawful now that the USDA has forced importers to slice off the pata negra.)
I took the slices home and had them for dinner, along with Epoisses cheese, a crusty baguette, and a glass of Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde. I was enjoying a four-star meal right in front of the telly.
The slices of red, almost bruise-purple ham are unlike anything you’ll ever eat. Yes, the cured meat has a nutty flavor, due mostly to the acorns that the small, black-footed pigs eat, but such a simple description does not do the ham justice. Every molecule of that meat has been infused with the forest in which that pig forages; the muscle and the fat almost melt on your tongue, leaving behind both a big buttery flavor and an ineffable sense of the Spanish countryside. It’s like you’re eating animal, vegetable, and mineral all at the same time.
It’s a primal eating experience that should not be missed—at any price.
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