Koji Kitamura, chef and owner of Ajihei in Princeton—a basement-level sushi den off Nassau Street with a devoted following—has a reputation as stern as Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. Regulars have witnessed ejections for infractions like boisterousness or complaining about slow service; parties of more than five people are forbidden; and the menu cover consists mostly of a list of proscriptions: “No hard liquor. No birthday cake. Max one bottle of wine for two people.”
American customers often assume Kitamura’s rules are born of Eastern asceticism, as well as a fanatical chef’s passion. Actually, he says, the reason is simpler: Ajihei has only 24 seats. He doesn’t want people tying up his few tables all night with parties and boozy storytelling and such. He wants as many people to eat his sushi on a given night as possible.
Kitamura takes his sushi seriously; himself, surprisingly less so. He jokes that before he moved to America he planned to sell automotive parts after college, and, as a Japanese immigrant, decided he had but two realistic career choices: limo driver or restaurant cook. Sushi lovers can be glad he chose the latter and worked his way up from a part-time job at a sushi catering company in Manhattan to a spot on the line at Nobu under Iron Chef star Masaharu Morimoto.
Despite that pedigree, he is not a sushi purist. To appeal to the American palate, he gladly adds extra sugar to his sushi rice, along with the requisite rice vinegar and salt. To sate the American appetite, he super-sizes his nigiri (the classic fish-on-rice shape), at the risk of bedevilling connoisseurs who try to follow the traditional injunction to eat each piece in one bite. As a practical matter, an order consisting of large pieces, Kitamura confesses, can be turned out faster than a like volume of smaller pieces, enabling him—that goal, again—to serve more people on a given night.
Asked what he thinks about diners dipping the rice side of their nigiri into the soy sauce (sushi cognoscenti dip only the fish side so as not to overwhelm the subtle flavors) Kitamura says matter-of-factly that customers will eat the way they like. Asked if he enjoys making extravagant rolls, like the rainbow, dragon and shrimp tempura rolls (all American inventions), he says that, after 10 years, he’s gotten used to it.
Mastered it, is more like it. A slight looseness in maki, or rolls, is a rare virtue in American sushi restaurants, but Kitamura’s rolls have it, allowing you to fully appreciate the texture of the rice and fish. Similarly, Kitamura avoids the rich sauces that turn most sushi rolls into simple exercises of sweet against savory, although his rolls are hardly austere. The rainbow roll, our favorite, pops with tamago (capelin caviar), which adds salt and moisture to already delicious slices of tuna and salmon. The shrimp tempura deluxe roll brilliantly deploys the appealing slipperiness of eel amid the satisfying tempura crunch.
Ajihei’s traditional sushi, both nigiri and chirashi (literally scattered), are some of the best we’ve had. The tart rice—each grain dense and chewy, each nigiri patty delicate and airy—always brings out the best in the fish, which Kitamura buys from the Fulton Fish Market in New York and, when appropriate, ages in his kitchen for up to nine days. “Time is cooking,” he says.
The word among some Ajihei enthusiasts is that cooked dishes don’t fare as well as the sushi. The non-sushi items may play second fiddle, but their music is not off-key. Oshinko—a colorful dish of pickled radish (yellow), cucumber (pink) and eggplant (purple)—are good for snacking (they won’t fill you up), and since they haven’t been overly pickled, the vegetables excite your taste buds without killing them, the radish with a mild sweetness that balances both the spice of the cucumber and the fermented kimchi punch of the eggplant. An ideal pre-piscine nibble. Less subtle is the tatsutaage (Japanese fried chicken), but then, we’re not always in the mood for subtle, and this chicken is tasty.
The only appetizers that don’t stand out are of the dumpling variety. Like many sushi restaurants in the country, Ajihei buys its gyoza and shumai frozen. This doesn’t necessarily make them bad, but they seem out of place: a common food in an uncommon restaurant. Steamed salmon fillet, an entrée served with salmon roe and shiso leaves on a bowl of sushi rice, is a subtle, beautifully balanced dish. Fried pork and salmon cutlets are well-executed but one dimensional. Chicken teriyaki is surprisingly successful—surprisingly because teriyaki sauce that isn’t cloying has come to seem like a miracle. Along with the pork cutlet, this may be the only child-friendly entrée.
Dessert is ice cream, and it comes in two flavors: green tea and red bean. Although both have the texture of supermarket pints, the green tea funkiness works well with the soothing cream, and the starchy sweetness of the red beans had us quickly polishing off our portion.
If you can abide its deficit of atmosphere and welcome, Ajihei will compensate you with its sushi.