Friday, January 18, 2013

Love At First Bite

It was love at first bite. Raw fish—it was either salmon, tuna or yellowtail—mounted on a thumb of sticky rice and dipped in the traditional wasabi and soy sauce mixture. Many people shun away from the uncooked seafood, some disturbed by its slippery texture and fishy smell, others simply nauseated by the mere idea. For me, however, there was no turning back once that initial morsel hit my molars and slivered down my throat at the ripe young age of seventeen. Since that day, wherever my travels lead me, I have kept eyes, ears and taste buds open for high-quality Japanese food, particularly nigiri sushi, sashimi and maki rolls.  

Eventually, a different kind of love landed me on The Rock and my search for good Japanese food hit a rough patch as restaurant after restaurant, primarily in Nicosia, failed to excite my palate. Then one evening almost five years ago my luck changed, and I visited Larnaca’s Nippon, to this day, in my humble opinion as a cultural-anthropologist-cum-wine-blogger, the best Japanese restaurant on the island.

After not having eaten there since 2009, I decided to stop by earlier this year to (hopefully) confirm my staunch belief in the joint. As usual, Gil Panayiotou, restaurateur and mastermind behind the popular eatery, welcomed our party with a wide grin, cracking a few jokes and lightening the mood as we were led to our table. There is nothing remarkable about the space; white minimalism and some colored fluorescent lighting define its d├ęcor. A long sushi bar with high stools anchors the h-shaped room and black tables, which are somewhat uncomfortably close to one another, occupy the remainder of the place. Then again, this is all trivial since what truly matters is the food and its inventiveness. 

We kicked off the meal with a bottle of 2011 Domaine Vlassides White, a Xynisteri and Sauvignon Blanc blend that was crisp and citrusy with a pleasant herbal component but not as complex and aromatic as the 2010 vintage. A few sips certainly got us in the mood to tackle the extensive menu, chock-full of salads, soups, tataki, makimono, appetizers, temaki, nigiri sushi, sashimi, gunkan maki and cooked specials. For those patrons who are either lazy, inexperienced, indecisive or just plain confused by the wide array of options, Gil is more than happy to hear their likes and dislikes and design a somewhat pricey meal based on their preferences. Even though he offered to help us out, this time around our party took to the menu like crazed bibliophiles, diligently working our way through the list and jotting down the reference number for each selected dish to avoid delays when ordering.

By night’s end, our stuffed party of five had sampled twenty-nine different dishes. Vegetable tempura, perfectly battered and fried and surprisingly diverse and light, served as our appetizer alongside a few bowls of salted edamame and tasty miso soup. The sashimi—salmon, tuna, sea bass and yellow tail—was ultra-fresh and dissolved in our mouths, while the Shake & Tuna (thin slices of raw tuna and salmon in a ponzu sauce, vinegar, ginger, soy and spring onion) had a nice kick thanks to the savory acidity of the soy sauce and vinegar. Gil treated us to an unbelievable seafood carpaccio drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and topped with parmesan flakes and fresh basil, a dish he proudly said is a staple chez lui.  The makimono rolls—we ordered eight different types—were, for the most part, creative and properly balanced. We particularly enjoyed the Kani (fresh blue fin crab with black caviar and sweet soy), which had a wonderful briny accent thanks to the caviar, and the Yawakarakai’s (soft-shell crab, mango, cucumber, teriyaki sauce, lettuce and crispy flakes) sugary crunchiness. Additionally, the spicy tuna rolls—a standard at most Japanese restaurants—was uplifted by a lovely and creamy spicy mayonnaise. The Suzuki Cilantro (breaded sea bass, white wine, sweet chili sauce, ginger, coriander and spring onion) took basic fish fingers to a whole different realm, balancing sweet and spicy to perfection, while the Razor Clams with ginger onion leeks and coriander were pops of spiced sea water in our mouths. Ironically enough, despite my adoration for raw seafood, the highlight was the cooked dish Gindara—miso marinated black cod grilled with mirin, sake and soy sauce was flaky, buttery in texture and complexly sweet, worth every penny despite the small portion and hefty price tag of almost thirty Euros. 

Yes, there are a few disadvantages to the establishment. Of the dishes we sampled, our party disliked the scallop tails with fresh chili, coriander and masago sauce, mainly because the tails had a processed food-like consistency and rather tame flavor despite the delicious sauce. Also, I personally felt that the prawns tempura, avocado and salmon in the Angel makimono roll were overwhelmed by the cream cheese’s richness. Furthermore, the restaurant is on the expensive side—for a good meal with wine, expect to pay anywhere between thirty to sixty Euro per person—and the atmosphere feels somewhat cramped. At the end of the day, however, none of these detract from the culinary experience to be had at Nippon, something that certainly explains why so many people from Nicosia drive south to satiate their desire for food from the land of the rising sun.


Whine On The Rocks Rating: 5 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas

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