Review: An omakase crash course at Afin

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 11.25.11
UPDATE: Afin has closed. Miche Ramen has taken over the space.
Fresh from an Austin Film Festival screening of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” compulsion drew me to Afin Modern Japanese Tapas, where I gave myself over to the chef’s six-course omakase, letting him call the shots.
For 105 minutes, I watched Jiro Ono and his crew of apostles at Tokyo’s Sukiyabashi Jiro shop for, dress out, serve and argue about fish in their 10-seat restaurant with three Michelin stars. At Afin, I watched the chef slice baby cucumber with tick-tock strokes, forming the base of a bowl finished with spicy ponzu and sea urchin — a spicy start that showed some kitchen savvy. To be frank, my sense of sea urchin extends only far enough to say that its firm tapioca texture seemed right, and I didn’t catch any flavors out of place, especially in that spicy bowl with a steady cucumber sharpness. The chef’s knifework became a real-time show in itself, as he sliced perfect lines of fish as if forming them from wet clay rather than something that had been alive just days before.
It’s dark in here, shadowy like a storage room. The walls are a submersing blue, and the room doesn’t smell fresh, though it seems like more of an older-building smell rather than a careless storage issue. The sushi bar is one of the least visually appealing I’ve seen. The fish cases lie in darkness; the tightly cellophaned stock is there for storage rather than show. With that visual impression as a starting point, the food had an uphill battle to make impressions of its own.
The music is some awful foreign and domestic pop mash-up, like the soundtrack to  “Rocky VI: Euroclash.” Simon Cowell is on one of the three TVs in the modest room, glowering in his dispossessed way at the latest pitchy wailer on “The X Factor.” I don’t want to follow his lead as a critic at Afin, but I’m still drunk from the high-definition splendor of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” His omakase starts at about $380 per person. Afin’s six-course omakase is more like $55.
Afin’s focus is compromised from conception by a decision to call what it does “Japanese tapas.” It’s a boozy-sounding collision of two cultures. And while the Spanish tradition rewards bold, complex flavors, the Japanese aesthetic rewards the simplest, freshest ingredients and subtle flavors to complement rather than cover those building blocks.
In the documentary, we walk with the camera through Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, and I’m sure that Sukiyabashi Jiro is one place the Boston Globe might find the right kind of fish. The newspaper recently found tilapia masquerading as red snapper and escolar passed off as white tuna. At least at Afin, they have the sense to call the fish of indeterminate pedigree simply “whitefish.”
Speaking of pedigree, I would never have guessed that the little circles of tough white meat with mottled red rinds were lobster. The plate, the third in my omakase experience , was full of disparate flavors: miso mustard, coconut shavings, avocado puree, radish, beets and the most singular of then all — a wasabi snow, like shredded sushi Dippin’ Dots.
Then the chef laid down a fishbone sculpture, a jack mackerel with the body meat rendered into sashimi tossed with Korean chile paste and sesame oil. The head and the shell of the body were fried into a sweeping arc, eyeballs and all. The chef and hostess both said the shell of the fish was the best part of the dish, an accoutrement meant to be eaten bite by crunchy bite. It was delicious, especially the meat at the head, and the body shell made a chip of sorts for the tumbles of oiled meat alongside. With a tablespoon of fat pearls of roe, the dish was a kind of ichthyological deconstruction.
With that avant-rustic course and another dish with well-seared scallops and asparagus, I thought dinner was showing promise. A dish of grilled eel that came next kept up the appearances, with pink pearled onions, ginger-soy and grilled onion with leathery woodear mushrooms. But the eel meat was overworked, with a tough texture and fishy aftertaste.
Dessert was a textural puzzle: chocolate-coffee mousse with the texture of a Hostess Sno-Ball and no hint of the morning roast, sharing a plate with a thick schmear of raspberry mascarpone and a fresh fig. After a night of clashing flavors, a simple dessert might have put more than an ellipses at the end of the sentence.
Maybe it’s unfair to Afin to bring them under a sharper lens after watching a film that celebrates the bright lights, clean lines and impeccable fish of a Japanese master. But I have sushi dreams of my own.
Afin Modern Japanese Tapas
6519 N. Lamar Blvd. 614-4974,
Hours: 4:30 to 10 p.m. daily.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)