A Raw Deal (Or: Crudos…and Don’ts)

1226597335That’s the thing about hot trends, fashion or otherwise: They’re so popular, everyone wants in on them.

And therein lies the trouble.

In the restaurant world, some of the hottest trends of years past have been adopted broadly and enthusiastically, with mostly harmless results—pomegranate, Okinawan taters, Kobe absolutely-everything. While “Kobe mini-burgers” may be missing the point entirely, there’s certainly nothing unappealing about scarfing down overly pedigreed sliders.

Other foodie fads, however, fall more into skinny-jeans territory. Meaning, not everyone’s got the goods to make them shine. The worst current offender?

Crudo. The fancy Italian term for raw fish tarted up (sometimes literally) with luxe ingredients, crudo has been all the rage of late, given a healthy boost, no doubt, by the popularity of premium sashimi dishes at O Ya, Uni, and Oishii. Now that the city’s Italian, French, Spanish, New American, and seafood restaurants are taking up the mantle, the limits of the trend are starting to show.

The problem is, not everyone’s got a knack for bringing out the beauty of a piece of uncooked fish. (Which makes sense, given that most chefs in America are trained the classic French way, with great techniques for whipping up a luscious pan sauce but not necessarily for balancing sashimi harmonies.)

Dissect Tim Cushman’s kinmedai sashimi at O Ya, and you can appreciate the delicate touch: the lean, ultra-mild raw fish is dressed with subtly flavored white soy sauce (for a hint of umami saltiness); ginger flower buds, called myoga (which provide low-key, floral aromatics and a bit of texture); and Meyer lemon oil (for a touch of bright acidity). At KO Prime, Ken Oringer pairs a more aggressively fatty hamachi with an equally gutsy black bean vinaigrette.

Next to such masterpieces, some of the lesser offerings around town sound (and taste) tone-deaf, like they were composed at the typewriter, in some menu scribe’s workshop. Plenty of fancy components are listed, but the gastronomic logic seems flawed.

At a recent tasting, in the middle of an otherwise flawless meal from one of the city’s most exciting and talented chefs, I tried a crudo offering that paired raw fish with pineapple, vanilla, and hazelnuts, which came out tasting like coconuts or pina coladas (and not in a good way).

Weeks earlier, I choked down a tuna sashimi dolled up with yuzu (trend alert!), jalapeno, and cilantro, three bright, lean flavors not grounded by anything resembling either salt or fat. The high notes stood in stratospheric relief above the fish it was meant to adorn.

At one of the very best restaurants in the city, I had kanpachi crudo that was so pickled (ceviche-ed) it might as well have been herring. For that pleasure, I paid in the high teens.

The point is that, as with hot shorts and belly shirts, not every menu trend is worth embracing. Play to your strengths. As the saying goes, there’s a fine line between crudo and just plain crude.