Mmm…fish heads. Photo: Flickr/Flawedartist
As a home cook, I consider myself a culinary MacGyver. When growling hunger hits, I rummage through the wilted dregs filling my fridge—a hectic New York schedule means days and weeks disappear before I grocery-shop. Rotting grub doesn’t depress me; instead, I take it as a challenge to create something edible out of food with one foot in a garbage bin.
I’ll shred softened cabbage, mince shriveled onions and garlic and cube tofu with a slightly pink hue. A hot wok, a splash of soy sauce, a spoonful of fermented black beans and dinner is served. In my household, not an edible morsel is wasted. My ability to conjure meals out of odds and ends, bits and bobs, fills me with penny-pinching pride.
But if I were a Japanese cook instead of a cheapskate Jew, I’d call this cookery makanai ryori. This term describes the delicacies that chefs in Japanese restaurants create for their communal staff meals. Cooks rely upon “waste” ingredients such as fish heads, vegetable scrapings and even nibs of wagyu beef to of every month, the West Village’s EN Japanese Brasserie (435 Hudson St. at Leroy St., 212-647-9196) offers intrepid diners its makanai-style Fish Heads, Eel Bones and Beer feast.
“Come on, don’t you want to eat fish heads, fish heads, roly-poly fish heads?” I asked my fiancée. She blanched, as if I asked if she wanted a boiling-water enema. “Uh, no.” Though she’s a committed seafood eater, she prefers her fish filleted, not staring at her with deadened glazed eyes. “There’s all-you-can-drink Sapporo!” I added brightly. She rapidly shook her head on a horizontal plane. Plan B: “Hey, Julie,” I called my eat-anything friend. “Want to come eat eel bones and fish heads?” “Yes, please!” she responded. “I will wear a dress—an elastic-waist dress.”
On the first Thursday of June, we arrived at soaring, multilevel EN and parked ourselves at a communal table in the darkened lounge looking onto Hudson Street. Around us, a young, mainly Japanese crowd sipped from Sapporo-branded pint glasses filled with bubbly liquid. Waiters brought steaming of their seemingly woebegone parts. By tureens of murky broth swimming and large, these repasts are reserved for with fish carcasses to the bar, while the restaurant staff. But on the first Thursday bartender hacked meat off a curved, browned, yoke-like length of… what the hell was that?
“That’s a bigeye tuna collar,” explained Jesse Alexander, EN’s dapperly dressed co-owner, who was pouring Sapporo for the endlessly thirsty crowd. “We freeze them and save them for the event,” which has been ongoing since February 2010. I nabbed a few slivers of the roasted fish. It was tender, tasting deeply of the sake marinade and miso, with nicely shellacked bits providing crunchy contrast. It was first-rate flavor from a second-class ingredient.
Less delightful were the deep-fried eel and fluke bones. Brown and brittle as pork cracklings, the paper-thin slices proved to be an oily danger. “I think I have bone caught in my throat,” Julie gasped, grabbing for her glass of beer. “Don’t be such a wussy,” I said, chomping a couple pieces. My karmic comeuppance came quickly: a bony shard dug deep into the roof of my mouth, causing me to yelp like my dog when I accidentally step on his tail. To her credit, Julie did not grin.
Not every edible doubled as a deadly weapon. I was addicted to the cold, vinegar-flavored rice that was filled with rosy pink bits of top-grade, butter-soft sashimi—the ends that are lopped off when preparing rolls. “Try this,” Julie said, passing me a bowl of cloudy miso soup. It smelled delicately of fish, of days spent at sea. “Don’t worry, I kept the eyeballs out,” she said. What a courteous dining partner!
I brought the bowl to my lips and slurped. It was rich and balanced, with umami depth and a dash of salt—a call to arms to drink more beer. While sipping the soup, a few chunks of something chewy and unidentifiable slid into my mouth. I chewed and quickly swallowed. What you don’t see can’t hurt you. Or so I’ve heard.
But dinner wasn’t a tour de force of shock and eww. There were custardy cubes of lightly fried tofu drenched in dashi broth, a light salad and planks of crunchy, breaded tonkatsu-style pork.
On the kitchen’s part, it was a wise call: Man and woman, Julie and I discovered, can’t live on fish bones alone.