March is sushi month. Then again, every month is sushi month. For a seasonal dieter, as I am, sushi is the one food that can be happily eaten whether you are on a diet or not. When I do go on a diet, I tend to eat it a couple of times a week. Even when I go off the diet (about two weeks later), I still eat sushi just as often. It is, as far as I know, the one comfort food that still keeps the veins clog-free.
Which brings us to Azuma, a small, self-effacing Japanese restaurant in a busy plaza near the Hartsdale train station. The restaurant is serene with soft lighting, comfortable furniture and a sushi bar of pale gleaming wood manned by four sushi chefs. Inside the cases, beautifully cut filets of fish shimmer through clear casing.
The four sushi chefs give a rousing cheer whenever someone comes through the door. I feel like Norm entering Cheers, and as I am alone, I decide to sit at the bar. Within seconds, the waitress has set down a small bowl of boiled edamame—green soy beans—that resemble peas but have a very subtle taste. I scan the menu; it has no shiny pictures, but instead a line list of items, mostly sushi with a few hot dishes for the sushi avoider. But it is sushi that has given the restaurant its reputation for excellence, and it is sushi that I plan to order.
I start with the uni—sea urchin, the critical test of a good Japanese restaurant. The thought of eating the mustard colored roe (sea urchins are bisexual, so roe covers more than you might think) can make even the most adventurous souls blanche. The sea urchin here is pristine, its texture slightly chewy, its flavors reminiscent of the ocean.
I turn back to the menu, but I never really doubted what I was going to order: the sushiest of sushi, sashimi, the deluxe version. This is the option where the rice is served on the side, and your plate is filled with naked slices of fish decorated by mounds of shredded Japanese seaweed, accompanied by strips of pickled ginger and wasabi for heat. With the sashimi, I choose the miso soup instead of a salad and am agreeably surprised. It’s not the milky stuff I am used to; this one is mahogany brown with a smoky flavor, and small button mushrooms that explode in the mouth. Another nice touch: it comes with aâ€‘wooden spoon; again it is a textural enhancement of the earthy character of the soup.
Meanwhile, the sushi chef is preparing the sashimi. The deluxe version has some serious ingredients. I watch with some surprise as he slices toro, taken from the fat underbelly of the tuna. Toro is prized by the Japanese and very expensive, not what one would expect in a generic selection of sashimi, however deluxe. But there it is, small strips of translucent coral-colored tuna, its texture creamy and its flavors long and subtle. He then slices some scallop. I am amazed how good it is raw, savoring a slight crispness before biting into the mineral flavored shellfish. Bonito is a special that day; it is a seasonal delicacy, a heavily flavored chewy fish served with tiny shards of green onion for contrast.
The other three offerings are more conventional: fluke with a slight underlay of lemon peel in the flavor, salmon and yellowtail. Even though conventional, they are perfectly fresh, and the flavors
Over subsequent visits, I go à la carte; and whether it’s the exotic items like tiny fresh sweet shrimp, sea bream or steamed monkfish livers (poor man’s foie gras) or Westernized sushi such as spicy tuna handrolls, eel dragon rolls filled with broiled eel, avocado and cucumber, the quality is extremely high.
Overall, Azuma is easy to like. The service is warm and personal and the pricing, especially given the quality, is very fair; dinner, including sake or beer averages $40 per person. Normally you would have to go to Manhattan to find sushi this good and pay a lot more. Whether I am on a diet or not, I will be back.
219 E. Hartsdale Ave., Hartsdale
Lunch, Tue. to Fri. 12-2 pm
Dinner, Tue. to Sat. 5:30-9:30 pm, Sun. 5:30-9 pm