Photo credit: Brook Griffin
I thought I had Privus figured out based on what owner Jarlath Quinn had done with his popular bar, The Kells, located right next door. After watching parties leave that watering hole mid-evening in search of Chinese food, Quinn hired a Chinese chef so that the bar’s patrons could have their lobster in black-bean sauce along with another round of Guinness. Then, when I heard Quinn had hired a chef from Ginza for his new nightspot Privus, I thought, “Okay, parties were leaving for sushi and he figured the same trick would work twice.”
617.787.7483 |165 Brighton Avenue, Allston | Open daily, 5 pm–1:30 am | AE, MC, VI
Full bar | No valet parking
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, Privus is a lounge, and it does have quasi-martinis with funny names, and sometimes it has music, but basically this is a serious Japanese-Korean restaurant. The bar is in the shape of a boat. The private booths have ocean-wave-like barriers to make them extra private. The whole place is done up in very techno Japanese black, white, and brown. And chef Jin Kim is the real deal, with the budget for airmail seafood and even imported Japanese mayonnaise.
As the waitress recited the specials of the day — seafood with Japanese names and English translations, available either as sashimi or sushi — it occurred to me to try them all by ordering the “Chef Jin’s special selection” (market price; recently $50). The chef started me off with a cup of miso soup ($2 à la carte). This is thinner, less salty, and more broth-like than other white miso soups, and that’s terrific in my book.
For real connoisseurs, it’s all about sashimi (raw seafood without the rice). Bearing that in mind, Jin took all the special seafood items and put them on a spectacular plate of sashimi. A large Pacific pen shell held thin slices of tairagai (the scallop-like pen shell) interleaved with thin slices of lemon.
Alternating distinctive and light flavors, the next item counterclockwise was four California sea-urchin roe on a leaf of shiso in a tall glass. These were the most deeply flavored uni I’ve ever tasted. Next was yellowtail, a mild white fish. It was light enough to use the accompanying wasabi-ginger-soy dipping materials. O-toro, the richly marbled bluefin tuna belly, was almost as rich in body and flavor as the sea urchin. Next to that were very thin slices of horse mackerel, some decorated with black caviar. Finally, there was Hawaiian wahoo, slices of a fish that seems to lack flake or grain, like tofu but with a lot of taste even when raw.
Returning to Privus with help, I worked down the menu without losing interest. A truly remarkable appetizer is “crispy salmon salad” ($10). A salad of crab, avocado, shredded cucumber, and salmon roe is wrapped in thin-sliced salmon, which is “torched” for a grilled flavor. The crispness is enhanced with tempura crumbs. Spicy Japanese mayonnaise pulls it all together, though the salmon roe is the key condiment. It all works like a dish that’s been served for hundreds of years. Special mixed sashimi ceviche ($10) is based on mixing sashimi chunks of tuna and strips of yellowtail (and some cooked octopus and one shrimp) with grape tomatoes and shredded vegetables, dressed with a Korean-style sweet-hot sauce.
The fried oysters appetizer ($7) gives you only three, in rather too much bread-crumb coating, but they’re pretty good with the spicy mayonnaise. Soft-shell crab tempura ($12) also had a little too much batter, but an excellent ponzu (lemony) dip rescued that platter.
There are two pages of maki (rolled sushi); we rather lucked into Bob’s Maki ($12). The inside is red, smooth, spicy tuna, and it looks like that will dominate, but the texture is changed by tempura flakes inside, and the flavor is set more by eel and avocado (and spicy mayonnaise) on the outside. All these ingredients work together like a favorite casserole.
Privus maki ($12) is almost as remarkable, with the ingredients sort of inverted. The eel is on the inside with avocado; the outside is torched salmon, scallion, and salmon roe. How these inside-out rolls stick together is where religion and science part company and we all stand in awe. These expensive maki are double portions, long rolls cut into about 10 pieces, and make an entrée for one or for sharing.
There are a few entrées, but our teriyaki salmon ($15) wasn’t up to the level of the sushi. It came on a sizzling platter that actually sizzled, but this is never a good sign, since the hot iron plate that makes that sound and wonderful aroma almost invariably overcooks what’s on top of it. That didn’t matter with the simple carrots. And the broccoli florets came out about right. But the teriyaki itself was flaky and overdone. The bowl of rice was sticky in the Japanese style but not aromatic.