Food and Drink: Japanese dream
Michie Sushi 11 Chelmsford Lane, Ranelagh, Dublin 6 *****
One of life's greatest joys must surely be the first taste of something so exotic that nothing like it has crossed your lips before, and so delicious that you won't rest until you taste it again.
The first time I tasted sea urchin roe I was in a blindingly bright Sicilian restaurant in rundown Marsala, the kind of side-street place you befriend locals to discover. We acquitted ourselves well at the antipasti buffet, trying everything offered. After some inhouse consultation, we were deemed worthy of their pasta of the day. Its exact definition disappeared into the gap between their English and our Italian, but we gathered the dish featured the spawn of some class of shellfish. Bowls of linguini duly arrived, tossed with small handfuls of what resembled autumnal-shaded slugs. It turns out that 'ricci di mare', commonly translated as sea urchin roe, is actually the ovary of the spiky sea urchin. I know, all of this sounds so very wrong. And yet, the taste of these slippery little flavour explosions is so very right: delicately creamy, sweet like the freshest of shellfish and salty like the spray of the sea.
The next time, I got to scrape those baby-urchin-making gonads out myself. They were served up by Kevin Thornton at the chef's table in his eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant, sitting pretty in their shorn shell amidst mist and seaweed. They tasted as sublime as I remembered. I was hooked.
I have since read that 'uni' is a source of the cannabinoid neurotransmitter, anandamide, and is thought to activate our dopamine system, the cerebral HQ responsible for regulating reward and pleasure. That could explain my euphoria on discovering Dublin's very own side-street 'uni' dealer, as sea urchin roe is known in sushi circles. A fellow fan took a clandestine call one early evening from Michel Piare of Michie Sushi, who runs his operation out of an unprepossessing unit down an unlikely suburban lane. Michel confided that he had just received an assignment fresh from the west coast. We ordered a delivery of sushi for four, with 'uni' nigiri taking pride of place. At less than €20 a head, it was one of the most memorable feasts I've eaten. It's a tribute to the culinary skills demonstrated across the menu at Michie Sushi, that the absence of 'uni' on the regular menu didn't ruin my recent meal for me. It was also a tribute to the helpful wait-staff that my unusual request was followed up and met with the information that I could pre-order this delicacy with a couple of days notice.
Happily, there is an excellent range of interesting choices on offer in the tiny 20-seater Ranelagh outpost of this growing sushi empire (with branches now delivering from Dun Laoghaire, Sandyford and Rathcoole). We went straight for Asahi beer, sipped while dipping lightly salted edamame soya beans into the excellent quality soya sauce provided at each simply set table.
Next, some sublime sashimi, which are the unadulterated slices of raw fish, in this case pristine salmon and tuna. The texture was as succulent as I remember from previous visits, the flavours as fresh. We sampled several nigiri, individual mounds of seasoned rice topped with a choice of seafood. Soft shell crab roll was a generous seaweed-wrapped affair spilling out crab encrusted in an excellent tempura batter, rolled with flying fish roe, avocado and spring onion. Green salad came sprinkled with seaweed and dressed with soy sauce. Finally, we sampled one hot dish from a choice that includes Japanese noodles and katsu curry. 'Dengaku' translates as crispy tofu and aubergine. Both were crispy on the outside, soft and light inside, and infused with the moreish flavours of sweet miso and sesame.
Dessert of mochi was definitely odd, but at €3.41 it was cheap and fun to try. The considerate waitress advised on chopsticks so we could avoid handling its unsettling texture. Like that sparsely decorated restaurant in Marsala, you don't go to Michie Sushi for the décor -- although the sushi-themed clock and green and red paint-job were as cheerful as the service and ambiance. You may go for the 'uni', but that's your call. What you do go for is some of the best Japanese food in the country, and the best sushi, hands down.
Why go? To eat superlative sushi in frill-free surroundings
What to order? Sea urchin roe if you're feeling adventurous, yaki udon noodles if you're not
Who to bring? Anyone from novices needing convincing to sushi aficionados
How much? €67 for two including beers and service