August 19, 2013
tartare de thon
I get really pissed off at times when I’m out for dinner. There are a number of things that can foul my temperament such as poor service or unpleasant fellow diners. The thing that bothers me the most is when a dish misses the point so badly that it still vexes me the following day. Case in point: A recent Saturday night.
My wife and I were dining with friends at a local restaurant considered by many people to be good. It sits at the edge of one of the richest neighborhoods—not mine—in the country. Although it has garnered decent reviews from the major regional papers and OpenTable diners give it 41⁄2 out of 5 stars, it really can’t be considered a destination restaurant. The parking lot this evening, even at the early hour we were dining, had more than a few Bentleys and high‑end Mercedes.
For my first course, I ordered the tuna tartare. It was listed on the menu as “Spicy Tuna Tartare, Pickled Cucumber, Wasabi Cream.” When the dish arrived a few minutes later, all the elements seemed to be there. So why did this one dish in particular piss me off? To me, this dish seemed epitomize lost opportunity. What a waste.
On first appearance, the dish looked fairly good, but it lacked white space. The plate was square, which is no problem. The first thing I noticed was an array of diagonal white lines traveling from one edge to the next. It looked like a high‑frequency sine wave trapped by the edges of the plate. This was obviously the wasabi cream. In the center of the plate was a 5‑cm (2‑in) high pyramid of tuna coated with a single but dense layer of black sesame seeds. The pyramid, with its square base, was sitting slightly off center on a ring of thin, slightly overlapping, cucumber slices. As I looked at the dish, I was reminded that more is not always better. After along the temporal highway where I just stared at the plate, one of my companions asked, “Aren’t you going to try it?”
When I dug into the tartare with my fork, I discovered that the tuna wasn’t diced. It seemed to have been ground in a grinder or pulsed in a food processor. It had the consistency of fish paste. Oily fish, like tuna, can form a sticky paste if heated slightly when cut. A small amount of head is generated in a hand or machine grinder as well as with a food processor. This makes the fish even more pasty or sticky. As I ate the tuna, my mouth looked for the flavor, but none was to be found. It didn’t taste spicy. It tasted vaguely like raw tuna, but not a great variety of tuna. The menu said that it was “environmentally sound seafood whenever possible.” I don’t know the variety or if this one was sound. It tasted like the low‑cost, pink‑fleshed tuna imported from Indonesia that we get in this area. My first bite also had a generous amount of the black sesame seeds, and they tasted slightly rancid. As much as I could, I scraped the rest of the seeds off the tuna pyramid.
I tasted a bit of the wasabi cream. Then I tasted a bit more. As my wife would say, “There wasn’t much there, there.” The pickled cucumbers were nice. They tasted like a typical sugar‑vinegar pickle, slightly spicy but refreshing. By themselves, I thought the cucumber slices were good, but with the tuna, they dominated. So I ate them first. I then mixed all of the wasabi cream with the tuna in an attempt to introduce flavor into the mixture and to loosen its texture. A little salt also helped. When I was done, only the sesame seeds were left on the plate. I tried to not let the dish spoil the rest of my meal.
The next morning I couldn’t get the dish out of my mind. How could something so simple be so wrong? I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The more I thought about it, the more pissed off I got. Happily, by the afternoon, my mind was elsewhere, and all was good in the world again.
About a week later, as I was walking the aisles of a local Japanese market looking for some esoteric product that they didn’t have, I noticed in their fresh fish case a couple of packages of trimmings from sushi‑grade tuna. The trimmings were strips of beautiful, red, ahi tuna, each about a centimeter (half inch) across. I bought the smallest package. It weighed about 125 g (41⁄2 oz).
Tuna tartare is one of those dishes that can be flavored in countless ways. Fruit juices or even their essential oils work. Most herbs work. Most spices work. Chili in various forms can be nice. As I diced the tuna—there would be no chopping or grinding—into 3‑mm (1
‑in) cubes, I thought about the flavoring candidates in my pantry and refrigerator. In the end, I settled upon crushed, dried fenugreek leaves, brown mustard seeds, and Okinawan shekwasha
(シークヮーサー) juice. The quantity of each was truly to taste.
I started by adding the fenugreek in sufficient quantity that I could just make out its flavor. Next came the mustard seeds, which I added for its crunchy pop and aftertaste. A few drops of the shekwasha juice to cut the oiliness slightly were next. Finally, a pinch of salt help to bring out all the flavors. After mixing and more sampling, the mixture was tamped down slightly in its mixing bowl, covered, and refrigerated for about 4 hours. The refrigerator time allowed the fenugreek leaves to hydrate and for their flavor to mellow nicely.
Next, I turned my thoughts to the wasabi cream. I nixed the idea of the cream and settled instead on mayonnaise. I whisked some wasabi powder—which is really horseradish powder—into some mayonnaise. Not enough flavor. I added more powder. Not enough flavor. More powder. Tasted again. More powder. Not bad. The viscosity was a little high so I added a spritz of water. Finally, a pinch of salt brought out the flavor a smidge. This mixture also went into the refrigerator and benefited from the 4‑hour chill.
When it came time to plate the tartare, I still didn’t have a firm idea as to how I wanted to do it. Finally, I pulled a bag of red‑leaf lettuce from my frig and separated a couple of the young, pale‑green leaves from the center of the head. I trimmed these a little with scissors so that they would fit into the category of bite size. Each received a dollop of tartare and a dab of the mayonnaise. It turned out that each portion of tartare was only 20 g (2⁄3 oz). That small package went quite a ways.
The next morning, I mixed the leftover mayonnaise with the leftover tartare. That combination wasn’t too bad either, and it made a great breakfast.