I am all too acquainted with the look of maternal concern, and I thought I recognized it on Mie Horimoto's face when I asked her about the maguro yamakake at her downtown Japanese restaurant Horinoya.
"Not a lot of people like that," she cautioned. I insisted, however, and soon learned why she tried to wave me off. The maguro part — chunks of raw tuna — was familiar enough, though the yamakake preparation involved grating a Japanese yam into a gooey, frothy, sour porridge which covered and coated the fish like a white film. With no spoon handy, I left most of the liquid untouched until my hostess urged me to pick up the small bowl and slurp it all down.
"It's good for you!" she cheered, sounding more maternal than ever.
I wouldn't order maguro yamakake again, but I wasn't disappointed. I'd come to Horinoya seeking dishes outside the normal range for local Japanese restaurants, and this one hit the mark spectacularly. Horinoya is full of experiences like this, though the dishes that inspired future cravings far outnumber the oddities.
There was the smoked duck, for instance, which arrived in wine-dark slices positioned over butterflied shrimp, the savory smokiness combining with the sweetened tartness of ponzu. For sugaki, raw oysters get a dose of that ponzu, plus the bite of scallions and lemon. The strong flavor of black cod mellowed into a buttery succulence after the fish was broiled for tara kasuzuke, while slices of marbled beef sizzled in butter on a hot stone brazier we tended ourselves at the table. At the end was a bowl of ochazuke, a deeply restorative, palate-cleansing soup of rice and green tea broth.
Mie and her husband, sushi chef Komei Horimoto, have run Horinoya (roughly translated as "Horimoto's house") since 2001. That would be long enough to breed familiarity, if not for the way their adherence to traditional Japanese cuisine stakes so many fresh revelations across Horinoya's sprawling menu.
Sometimes these are striking, like orange-colored pads of ankimo, or monkfish liver, which is rich and velvety, like foie gras, but also has a marine-tinged creaminess. Other times the revelations are subtle but fundamental, especially concerning the sushi. Seaweed tastes warmly toasty. Rice is packed loosely so individual grains seem to dissolve in the mouth. And between the fridge and your table, Horimoto takes care to temper the fish, so, like fine cheese, the proper texture and flavor comes across. For a tour de force, order Horinoya's version of chirashi sushi, a tightly clustered collection of sashimi and salads arranged like a bouquet over pressed rice.
The dining room is modern and linear, decorated with blonde wood and blue neon. In back are curtained-off tatami rooms, where guests remove their shoes and gather around low tables as Horimoto serves omakase style, selecting courses himself. You need a group — and special reservations — for the tatami room, but any seat in the house at Horinoya offers a clinic in classic Japanese flavors.