On a trip to Japan years ago, I was treated to dinner at a tiny, unadorned sushi bar with just one guy making sushi behind a counter that seated maybe 12 people. It was astonishingly good. I later found out it cost as much as a monthly mortgage payment on a nice house back home. It was one of the most expensive types of restaurants in Japan: a boutique sushi bar of a master sushi chef. But it turns out you can have a similarly stellar sushi experience at Tomo’s Cuisine in East Hanover, and it won’t cost more than eating at almost any other Japanese restaurant in the state.
The storefront space, wedged between a movie theater and a Chuck E. Cheese, is plain—just a beige room with dark wood tables and chairs and a wallboard of hand-scrawled specials.
But this is the command center of Tomonori Tanaka, or Tomo to his devotees, such as the regulars whose personal sake bottles are stashed on the bar.
Tanaka makes all the sushi up front and also ducks into the kitchen to grill a whole squid or fry up an order of perfectly light and crisp tempura. He does it all, helped mainly by his wife, Fin, who runs the dining room, keeping tabs on each table, reciting ingredients, remembering orders and even the names of customers she hasn’t seen in years.
Tanaka dots the margins of his two-sided laminated menu with humorous asides (“Tomo’s Diet Plate: 1/2 the food, 1/2 the calorie, Full Price!!”) and a curmudgeonly challenge: “You still eating junk-roll?”
Speaking of rolls, his are traditional and simple, most with just one type of fish and perhaps an enhancing ingredient, such as scallion or cucumber.
His sushi is equally classic: tender, thick slices of fish or shellfish, just a few degrees cooler than room temperature (no right-from-the-fridge sushi here), draped over perfectly firm, barely sweetened rice. Assortments are available as entrées, or you can order à la carte.
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Daily fish specials might include red aoyagi clam, a rarity that Tanaka utilizes fully, giving you the sweet and crunchy center as sushi, plus a nori-wrapped extra piece of sushi containing the edges and trimmings, and a little sashimi fan of muscle.
Fatty tuna is always available, often including both o-toro (deep red and marbled, from the front of the belly) and chu-toro (pink from its high fat content, from the center/rear of the belly). These are served raw, seared or scraped into mounds of silky-soft negi-toro, which can be made into a satisfying hand roll with scallion.
Engawa (the muscular edge of a flounder’s tail fin) also often appears as a special. Rich in collagen, it is slightly crunchy at first, then a little chewy, with a lingering sweetness.
What first appears to be a mermaid’s jewelry box is actually the Toku-Jyo sashimi platter, an assortment of many varieties of fish, including the more exotic specials of the day, arranged into a landscape so natural that one imagines it was assembled by ocean currents and tides.
The menu of small cooked dishes is reminiscent of the traditional Japanese tapas sake bars called izakayas. It includes tonjiru (a hearty, rich spicy pork-miso soup), skewered chicken (yakitori), broiled mackerel, and braised beef with tofu.
Another standout is ankimo, steamed monkfish liver. This coral-colored delicacy has a smooth, slightly firm texture and a subtle yet complex flavor, hinting of the sea. Tanaka garnishes it traditionally, with momiji oroshi, a grated daikon radish reddened by chili, but mild and sweet in flavor. On the list of greatest single bites, this could be the champion. Just don’t compare it to foie gras in front of Tanaka. As he insists in a note on the menu, “Unlike man-made sick liver from obese duck, Ankimo is all-natural monkfish liver! So enjoy the ocean’s natural taste!”Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:Japanese
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Appetizers, $2.75-$22.50; entrées, $16.50-$48.95; sushi per piece, $1.75-$8.50; five-course tasting menu for two, $160; dessert, $3-$3.75
- Service:Warm and attentive
- Wine list:BYO