“Twenty years ago, no Japanese person would’ve imagined putting cream cheese in a sushi roll. We resisted adding it to our menu for a very long time,” explains Quique Yafuso, owner of Haiku, an enclave of Japanese cuisine in the depths of Bajo Belgrano. “In my house we ate a lot of Argentine food but when we went to my grandparent’s house we would eat traditional Japanese. What I remember most is my grandfather making sashimi with whatever fresh fish he had found in the market that day.”
Yafuso is referring to what is considered amongst the finest dishes in Japanese cuisine. It is a deceptively simple preparation of raw fish that is sliced into varying thicknesses to highlight its purity and freshness—the only flavors obstructing a fatty cut being a minuscule globe of wasabi paste or grated ginger. Notoriously difficult to master, the obstacle is equally shared between its preparation and the skill required to recognize the correct smell, color, texture and firmness of a fish that is fresh enough to serve.
The menu at Haiku reads like any other Japanese eatery. A selection of sashimi, nigiri, maki and rolls with names like Boston, Thai and New York sit alongside a handful of familiar hot dishes dressed in teriyaki and soy sauce. General manager Alejandro García hunches over the table to point out a restaurant specialty, omakase, which translates to “I’ll leave it up to you” and gives the sushi chef to free reign orchestrate the entire meal. “Absolutely no cream cheese,” I tell him with a kind sternness, “Under no circumstances.” García responds with an assured nod.
When Yafuso opened the restaurant twenty years ago with his sister Mónica, finding sashimi was generally reserved to experiences just like this in the homes of a tight-knit and isolated community of Japanese families. “There were some restaurants in the city at the time but they were traditional places for Japanese people [sic] little exclusive restaurants in private houses or hidden somewhere in Congreso and Balvanera. There wasn’t anything for people outside of the community.”
Today, it is difficult to imagine a time when a lone Japanese restaurant isolated on the northern edge of the city was the only option. It feels like there are as many sushi deliveries as there are vegetable stands and kioscos. In the culinary desert of south Almagro that I call home, Pedidosya lists nearly seventy sushi delivery options. Ordering lackluster sushi is as easy as ordering a microwaved ham and cheese empanada.
Collectively, these spots have bastardized the idea of sushi: a luxury item which takes years of apprenticeship to master and is ordinarily reserved for celebratory occasions. Although I am hardly a traditionalist when it comes to cooking, the avocado, dry salmon and Philadelphia cream cheese orgy beloved beyond any reasonable comprehension is a lazy homage to anything that remotely resembles the delicate craftsmanship of a seasoned sushi master. And the woman at the table beside me who asked for olive oil rather than soy sauce to flavor her meal is an unsurprising consequence.
A simple wooden platter of unadorned sashimi, nigiri and rolls floats like a dream over to the table. Tamagoyaki, a thick omelette cut into triangles, is silky smooth with a light buttery finish. A kaleidoscope of fish decorates each end. Long flakes of white octopus rest atop an oval of white rice that is slightly sticky and has faint notes of rice vinegar and sugar. The octopus has a chew like juicy piece of fried chicken. Thick slabs of pink salmon are served solo, the flesh is soft and creamy. Fresh besugo, or red seabream, was a fresh market find; its lean and delicate flavor stood at a contrast to the salmon served also as nigiri and in a simple roll with avocado.
Simple nigiri elaborations quickly followed. Butterflied shrimp dressed with mango and sesame seeds was tender and meaty. A thick slice of sole fish with flecks of char from a quick graze of a blow torch had an unexpected smokiness and flakey texture. Red tuna painted with a thin brushstroke of passionfruit and sprinkled with candied nuts was an exemplary demonstration of sushi master Adrián Nicolás Hernández’ unique skill. Hernandez respect for his raw materials were on full display, with simple personal touches that never overwhelm the senses. Passionfruit is often served sticky and sweet, here it was a runny cream that together with the candied nuts pulled out the sweetness of the red tuna. Even more standard fare, like a roll stuffed with shrimp and avocado and topped with a thin sheet of pink salmon, felt special and new.
The restaurant celebrates its twentieth anniversary in October. Although it no longer represents a rarity in the city’s restaurant scene, the quality of its kitchen remains paralleled by only a select few. When the waitress asked if I’d like dessert (hint: scratch authenticity and order the damn cheesecake) my tongue couldn’t bear covering the tastes of red tuna and octopus and seabream and sole that continued to sing.
Av. Congreso 1694, Bajo Belgrano
Tuesday through Thursday 8:15 to midnight, Friday and Saturday 8:15 to 1:00am, Sunday 8:15 to midnight