A Lesson in Subtlety

“Amplitude” is the word sensory experts use to describe flavors that are well integrated and balanced in a given product. When a dish is said to be high in amplitude, it means that it gives one an overall impression of balance, unity, and harmony, with no one individual flavor note jumping out above the rest. What it really means is that the dish is designed to hit the primal points of the sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, all at once.

Amplitude is not necessarily indicative of high quality or hedonic characteristics (a good example is Coke, or Heinz ketchup, both of which are amazing, high amplitude products (see Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “The Ketchup Conundrum” http://www.gladwell.com/2004/2004_09_06_a_ketchup.html).

It would also seem that high-amplitude, universally liked products tend to fall into one of the two categories: full-flavored & balanced, or subtle & balanced. The American palate certainly favors the former, – intense, rich, heavily extracted, powerful flavors. Think commercially produced American basil pesto versus Italian homemade pesto…

I will take this further and say that the combination of balance and subtlety (which is so hard to come by in the US) signals a serious commitment to quality. One such place (visited on our most recent NYC trip) is Sakagura, one of the top izakaya in this country housed in the basement of a Midtown office building.  An izakaya is a drinking establishment serving good food (essentially a Japanese wine bar); therefore, the menu at Sakagura is supposed to play a mere supporting role to the 200+ sakes on its list. To me, these simple, pure, understated dishes do more than that…

Here is a sampling of what we ate:

ONSEN TAMAGO :  Soft Boiled Egg Topped with Sea Urchin and Salmon Roe in Cold Soup 

TAMAGOYAKI :  Sliced Egg Omelet with Bonito Broth, Half Served Wrapped Around Grilled Eel

HIRAME CARPACCIO : Fluke Sashimi Drizzled with Olive Oil Topped with Plum Paste, Salmon Roe, and Shiso Leaf

ONIGIRI Rice Balls with a Choice of Topping (Pickled “UME” Plum and Spicy ” Takana” Leaves) 

HISUI NASU SOBA :  Homemade Cold Plain Buckwheat Noodles Special

KUMIAGE –YUBA: Silken Homemade Tofu Sashimi with Ponzu Sauce and Salmon Roe



Featured Food: Perilla (Shiso) Leaf

Our recent trip to Sakagura in NYC sparked my interest in perilla (or, as Japanese call it, shiso) leaves. It is a very aromatic (and I am a sucker for aromatics :-)) jagged-edged plant from the basil and mint family widely used in Japanese savory dishes as an ingredient or garnish:


At Sakagura we tried it in several variations: as a counterpoint to fluke carpaccio, alongside with salmon roe and plum paste, with silken homemade tofu sashimi, alongside ponzu sauce; all fabulous.

Naturally, I was inspired to experiment on my own, and shiso leaves were added to our shopping list at Hana, a unique Japanese grocery store on U Street in Washington, DC. They have a nice selection of fresh Japanese vegetables from local farms, as well as from a Japanese vegetable farm near L.A. (flown in every Thursday).

To keep things simple, I decided to pair my shiso leaves with sliced adorable baby cucumbers that we had picked up at a farmer’s market the day before, and briefly pickled in rice vinegar, salt, sugar, and minced fresh ginger:











Result: a crisp, mouthwatering palate cleanser!