Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Doesn't anyone know how to prepare unagi in this town? The continuing quest for decent ethnic food in Bratislava

Sushi in this town fares slightly better than Thai, which may not be surprising given that sushi restaurants in Bratislava outnumber those of all other asian cuisines. However, while the places we've tried generally seem to get the fresh nigiri and maki rolls right, none of them have even the slightest grasp of how to prepare and serve unagi (grilled freshwater eel), which is devastatingly sad because unagi (with its silky smooth, delicate texture and rich, totally distinctive sweet/savory flavor) is my favorite thing to eat at sushi restaurants, and I ultimately judge a sushi place on the quality of its unagi.

Osaka Sushi Bar is a Slovak-operated/staffed restaurant located way the hell out in Vrakuňa, which is a panelak wonderland on the outskirts of town that feels like nowheresville, and whose main claim to fame is a seedy, crime-ridden panelak development called Pentagon. I'd been told by a few sources that Osaka serves some of the best sushi in Bratislava, which is the only reason we made the epic trek out there. Overall, the sushi was fine, but nothing mind-blowing. 

The fish (sake [salmon], maguro [tuna]) was fresh, not fishy, and the flavors and textures were quite nice. The unagi tasted decent, but quite strangely, was served cold (I have to emphasize how utterly bizarre and wrong this is), and as a result it lacked that freshly grilled, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth texture that it's supposed to have, and its rich flavor was diminished as well. So, a big point deduction for that. 

The spicy tuna rolls were quite spicy and tasty, if a bit primitively executed, while the salmon skin rolls were pretty good, with a nice bit of crunch. The rice served with the nigiri and rolls was a bit too cold - it needed to be closer to room temperature. Overall, the flavors were nice, and given that it was the first sushi we'd had in over a year, it definitely satisfied our craving.

Osaka's main problem was that it was really overpriced. This was exacerbated by the fact that they don't serve nigiri in pairs, which is really unusual. If you order sake or unagi nigiri, for example, they only give you one piece, as opposed to two, yet it's priced as if you're getting two! If Osaka was located in San Francisco, it would be considered merely decent and we probably wouldn't return because there are better places that are easier on the wallet. But if this really is the best sushi in our adopted home of Bratislava, I suppose we may have to return when our sushi cravings get out of hand.

Zen Sushi, another sushi place operated/staffed by stone-faced Slovaks (I'm really starting to miss being greeted with the traditional "Irasshaimase!" by the sushi chefs working behind the counter of Japanese-run sushi joints), offered kind of a similar experience, except that it was a bit cheaper and MUCH closer to home (literally just about four blocks away). Located in an indoor shopping "passage" in the Old Town that links Laurinská street and SNP square, the place was relatively hopping with locals, and they had unagi on the menu, so we figured we'd give it a try. 

Like Osaka, the fish was fresh and tasty, but also like Osaka, they sold nigiri individually and not in pairs, but fortunately, it was more reasonably priced here, so ordering two pieces wasn't going to significantly run up the bill. 

However, the glaring sore point here was the unagi. Once again, it was served stone cold, and in terms of texture, was more dried out and lacking in flavor than Osaka's. I just don't get it. Unagi is not served cold, so why are these places stubbornly insisting on doing it the wrong way? Would it kill them to at least zap it in the microwave before serving it? I mean, that would be preferable to eating it cold. 

The jury is out on which of these two places is better. Terezia leans toward Zen, but I might give the slight edge to Osaka, despite it being horribly overpriced and far away. Of course, neither place can hold a candle to our favorite sushi joints back home (Tachibana - we miss you!). 

Maehwa Sushi was recommended to us by some people we know, who told us that they always saw lots of Asian people eating there, which they took as a good sign, and which is something you don't see at the other places at all. In fact, we saw more people of Asian descent in one hour at this place than we've seen in an entire year and a half around town. I'm not exaggerating!

At any rate, Maehwa is located way the hell out by Zlaté Pieski, a fairly large, public swimming hole that's popular with the locals in summer. However, taking the tram there in the middle of winter involved walking about a quarter of a mile from the tram stop to the restaurant, down an undeveloped and unlit street littered with potholes full of murky water, and whose sidewalks were covered in several inches of snow. Our feet were wet by the time we got to the place.

Maehwa is Korean-run (the first asian restaurant we've found that's not staffed solely by Slovaks, although the waitresses were Slovak), and there is a really good Korean-run sushi place in San Francisco called Nagano, which made some of the most kick-ass unagi I've found anywhere, so I had somewhat high hopes for Maehwa.

Unfortunately, it was really all over the place in terms of quality. The tuna maki and shrimp tempura maki were good (nice balanced flavors, fresh), while the sake nigiri was just okay (not as buttery in texture as it could be, but at least it wasn't fishy), although very generously portioned (were they trying to get rid of it?). However, the unagi was horribly, appallingly wrong.

Rather than prepare it in delicate but tender and fleshy strips, the pieces of unagi looked like thick little rectangular sponges - a bit like Spongebob without the pants. The unagi nigiri left a lot to be desired, but the grossly overpriced unagi roll was just utterly and unpleasantly bizarre. The unagi, while at least warm this time, had an odd texture - it didn't really melt in our mouths in that silky, buttery way that good, fresh unagi does, and the chef left the skin on the bottom, which I've never encountered before. The glaze was kind of nasty - it was excessively salty and sweet at the same time, and left a funky aftertaste. I just don't think it was fresh, and the gross glaze did a poor job of masking that. Plus, the avocado, egg, and rice roll which the unagi was placed on was stone cold, and just didn't meld together with the unagi at all. It didn't help that the thick, sponge-like chunks of unagi were too thick to warp around the roll, but were basically just kind of stuck on to the top of them and fell off as soon as you picked a piece of it up with your chopsticks. The unagi may have been served warm-ish, but that was obviously not enough to redeem its other glaring flaws.

We noticed that the (presumably) Korean people who were filtering in were all being ushered into a back room, which we could sort of make out through an open doorway, and which appeared to have a much cozier and inviting atmosphere than the brightly lit room in the front where we were seated. We also noticed that all the dishes that the waitresses were bringing back to them were Korean entrees. This *might* just be the place to go for some traditional Korean specialities. We do like good Korean barbecue, but it's not something we regularly crave like sushi or Thai.

Oh well.

Next on the list is a very chi-chi place in Petržalka called Fou Zoo. I'm a bit skeptical because its menu is kind of asian-european fusion (some of their sushi rolls have foie gras, for example), but they do seem to offer some more traditional sushi items. Hopefully we'll get the chance to try it next month, and as soon as we do, I guarantee you'll hear all about it.

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