Order this... Fresh sushi and sashimi at The Oar
Zen: A state of calm attentiveness in which one's actions are guided by intuition rather than by conscious effort.
When you think about The Oar, the word “zen” may not immediately come to mind — unless you happen to catch TJ, the sushi chef, in his element at the sushi bar. His calm, focused energy is a great balance against the backdrop of one of the busiest restaurants on the water. With a staff of 107 people from all around the world, you’ll have one of 16 people making your food and one of 55 on the floor serving and bussing.
What makes The Oar memorable is not just the view, the food (the Rita Rolls! The mudslides!) and the service. It’s also the 1,500 oars hanging from the walls and ceilings, each uniquely decorated, providing a backdrop that inspires good conversation and creative ideas. The oldest oar is from 1967, hung in the same building where Mr. Mott started a clubhouse for the Storm Trysail boat race. While the inside space has reached max oar capacity, more are being added on the porch. What qualifies an oar to be added? First of all, it can’t be a paddle (oars only have one blade, and are used exclusively for rowing, whereas paddles can have either one or two blades and are not rowed). Your oar has a better chance of longevity in terms of staying hung if it is either a lefty or up-and-down instead of sideways. Only one side should be decorated (but not with trinkets or seashells as they tend to fall off when the oars are stored for the winter), and as George, the Oar’s manager, advises, “the more you put into it, the longer it stays.”
Under this backdrop, my friend and I were presented with a plate of sashimi. The salmon, yellowtail, and tuna are a study in hues of coral and ivory, laid down on a canvas of shiso leaf and daikon threads. Sashimi is a Japanese delicacy consisting of very fresh raw meat or fish sliced into thin pieces, and its transparent simplicity necessitates the freshest ingredients. It is incredibly simple, where the only thing between you and fish is a whisper of wasabi and soy sauce, yet it is also transformative when you consider that the pieces are so perfectly sliced that you can handle it with chopsticks.
We also ate a refreshing and colorful salad of Ahi poke (POH-keh) — tuna with togarashi and avocado that was a lovely compliment to the sashami. The tuna was fresh, well-cut, and balanced nicely by the creaminess of the avocado.
TJ, the sushi chef who prepared our meal, talked to me about what it’s like to be on Block Island, how he became a sushi chef and the most unusual ingredients he’s worked with in his career.
How did you become a sushi chef?
I was working as a bartender and met a Japanese man who made sushi. Once I learned how to make it, I fell in love with the concentration it requires, especially when it’s busy. I also enjoy the challenge of maintaining an air of calm because I’m making sushi out in the restaurant, not back in the kitchen, so it adds an extra element to remain focused while I’m on display.
What has been your biggest challenge so far?
When I was working at a sushi place in Portland, Oregon, I had two ladies who wanted omakase (a Japanese phrase that means “I’ll leave it up to you”), but they wanted it to be vegan. I was able to do it and was so proud that they liked each course I served.
What do you like about working at The Oar?
The quality of fish is fantastic, the tuna is nice and fatty and when it’s not local, it’s flown in from Hawaii. We get fresh fish every day and it’s great to work with it. I also was able to cut my first whole tuna last summer — that was an amazing experience.
What do you love about Block Island?
I love the challenge of being away from the mainland, and being in the environment of the island. You’re kind of reduced to your own self out here, and I’ve learned a lot from that.
Where do you like to eat when you’re not at The Oar?
The blackboard specials at Poor People’s Pub are always good.
What food would you never eat again?
Raw sea snail — it has to be eaten alive. You have to take a bite and then pat what’s left, and if it moves you can still eat it. It was also really chewy and not at all flavorful.
What would you eat for your last meal?
I’d have a big plate of sashimi — salmon and tuna belly — and a quail egg habanero masago (roe) shooter.
What do you wish people would try at the Oar?
The sashimi and nigiri. They’re both so good because it’s just straight fish, and you can really taste how good it is.
What’s the most unusual ingredient you’ve ever prepared and eaten?
Two things: one is monkfish liver, it’s incredibly soft and melts in your mouth — and the other is the bloodline of a tuna. We cut it up, fried it and ate it — it was delicious.