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Home Food Sushi That Swims Against the Tide of Tradition

Sushi That Swims Against the Tide of Tradition

The words “sustainable sushi” do not necessarily pluck the heartstrings in waltz time.

Virtuous shopping does not always go along with skillful cooking, let alone a practiced hand at slicing amberjack, blending soy and all the other elements of exceptional nigiri. The difference has become more pronounced as New York City has attracted more omakase counters whose chefs have imbibed the traditional techniques of the Edomae school during long apprenticeships in Japan.

Their menus have refined our notions of sushi. Their reverence for custom, though, often extends to the choice of fish, regardless of how far away it was caught or how depleted its stocks have become since the Edo period.

Rosella, which has been serving what it calls sustainable sushi in the East Village since the fall, comes up with one remarkable dish after another by swimming against the Edomae current. It uses ingredients that aren’t in the traditionalist playbook, from fish sauce and coconut milk to seafood species. Like Nobu when it first came along, Rosella makes you smile with pleasure and then makes you question what you thought you knew about sushi.

Take Rosella’s mussel nigiri. Mussels are among the easiest shellfish to farm, and because they’re filter feeders they clean the water as they get fat. Yet they are rarely seen in sushi-yas in New York, let alone Tokyo. I suppose I’ve always vaguely assumed that they simply don’t have what it takes to appear alongside such elite nigiri toppings as gizzard shad. Then I ate two steamed Prince Edward Island mussels that were enhanced by sake with lemongrass, ginger and other aromatics, then laid over rice. They were soft and buttery like poached oysters — more like oysters, at least, than most mussels you come across.

Carefully farmed steelhead trout can have a finer, leaner flavor than farmed salmon. It is not completely unknown at local sushi counters but I’ve never tasted sushi made from steelhead’s coral-pink flesh that is as bewitching as Rosella’s. Smoked over apple wood chips and diagonally slashed for tenderness, it is seasoned with a sharp dot of minced shallot pickles.

Smoked steelhead also appears in an inside-out roll; dill cream cheese, cucumber, and Japanese omelet are tucked inside the rice, which is speckled with toasted sesame seeds. The roll, called Yoni’s Breakfast, is both a credible homage to lox on a bagel and a welcome bit of humor at a restaurant that takes provenance seriously.

Yoni is Yoni Lang. He and a second owner, Jeff Miller, run the kitchen together. The two chefs met in Austin, Texas, while working at Uchiko, Tyson Cole’s sushi-and-then-some restaurant. Like them, Mr. Cole looks at fishery numbers when buying seafood and isn’t content sticking to the colors in the Japanese crayon box. After leaving Texas, before going into business with Mr. Lang, Mr. Miller workshopped some of Rosella’s dishes and its sustainability program at Mayanoki, an omakase restaurant a few blocks south.

There is an omakase option at Rosella, too, a $150 tasting for which you pay in advance. It is probably best suited for eating indoors at the counter, made of boards sawed from the trunk of a London plane that grew in Red Hook, Brooklyn, until Hurricane Sandy blew it down. All my meals so far have been eaten under the roof a solidly carpentered shack on the pavement, between Lucy’s bar and the darkened shell of Doc Holliday’s, which is resting its scuffed cowboy boots until saloons are allowed to act like saloons again.

Even with its bars dimmed, Avenue A is alive at night with the usual nightcrawlers. A succession of 15 small plates might be out of place by the sidewalk, but Rosella’s long à la carte menu lends itself to a casual dinner at whatever pace you like.

A bowl of cold fish is almost mandatory. The ceviche is odd until you realize it is a seafood salad with Southeast Asian tendencies, and a very interesting one, an assemblage of green herbs, fried shallots, citrus segments and raw fish caught not too many miles away. Most ceviche recipes would call for tossing the seafood with lime juice and chiles. Rosella whips up a tart pomegranate dressing, with lime juice, Vietnamese fish sauce and some housemade garum, the ancient condiment fermented from fish intestines.

Or you could begin with the crudo. Again, ignore the name — Italy doesn’t have anything to do with this bowl of raw tuna and creamy Champagne mangoes over a thick pool of lemongrass-scented coconut milk, circled by a ring of peppery green oil made from the Vietnamese herb rau ram.

That tuna could be bigeye, or it could be bluefin, as it was on my first outing to Rosella, when I also ate bluefin in a tuna roll spicy with jalapeño and crunchy with kimchi. On certain nights, there is more bluefin on Rosella’s menu than you will see in any establishment not run by Masa Takayama.

Hearing that a restaurant advertising sustainability serves bluefin in abundance will make some people sputter as if they had snorted lines of pure wasabi off Leonardo DiCaprio’s back. Nearly everybody has heard at some point that bluefin are endangered. Fewer people know that intensive management of commercial tuna fishing helped the Western Atlantic bluefin species rebound to the point that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has for the past few years classed it as a “smart seafood choice.” Not all environmental groups agree. Citing a recent dip in the population, in March the Monterey Bay Aquarium downgraded the species from “good alternative” to “avoid.”

Lax enforcement and outlaw boats are threats to progress. Rosella’s decision, for now, is to reward good behavior. The chefs say they buy bluefin only when it comes from fishing crews that use hand-held gear, obey catch limits and observe seasonal closures. Whether you agree is up to you, but I think it is useful to talk, as the servers will if you ask why bluefin is on the menu, about the fishing practices that give it a chance to come back.

And there is plenty of excellent fish at Rosella that is not bluefin: flash-seared Gulf shrimp brushed with a mind-opening oil made from dried chiles and the shrimp’s juicy heads; walnut-smoked amberjack under a crunchy armor of sunflower seed salt; firm strips of black sea bass from Rhode Island.

If your appetite survives this, noodle soup should take care of it. The laksa suffers from a somewhat anemic broth, a charge that will never be made against the fish ramen; its potent stock is made by boiling the heads of all the fish whose bodies have gone to sushi. Those who don’t like fishy fish should stay away, and maybe even cross the avenue, while the rest of us happily drown in it.

With dessert, anyway, you can leave the coast behind. There’s a bittersweet chocolate crémeux with cushions of cotton cake, which wafts on a cloudlike continuum somewhere between milk bread and cheesecake. But you should probably not leave without investigating the orange cream amazake, almost certainly the best fermented rice pudding in the city.

Rosella’s third owner, TJ Provenzano, assembled the wine list, which has its eye on small batches from small winemakers. Every bottle is from the United States except for a dozen or so sakes from Japan. With many choices by the glass, it is a list you can get lost in, which may help explain why one night, sitting outside with my third or fourth orange wine, I found myself engaged in meaningful eye contact with a sheepdog.

The dog, who was out for a walk, pulled in my direction.

Its walker asked our server, “Is it OK if my dog joins you?”

“Is your dog cute?” she said.

The answer was obvious, and she disappeared into the restaurant for a moment to get a can of treats kept on hand for occasions like this. After the dog had humored her with a trick or two, she handed over what looked like a long cigarette rolled in silver. It was dried fish skin.

Think what you want about the bluefin. Any restaurant that saves fish skin for the neighborhood dogs has its heart in the right place.


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