by Corin Hirsch
Yes, this is a crappy iPhone photo, but see the beer in that glass? That's Hill Farmstead Amarillo single-hop ale. And the nigiri sushi in back? Those are curls of nairagi — or striped marlin — and yellowtail, topped by dollops of roe.
Sushi as a bar snack is a brilliant stroke, and happily it's served within 10 minutes of my house — at Blackback Pub & Fly Shop, Rick Binet's subterranean pub on Waterbury's Main Street.
A ripple of concern passed through fans of Stebu Sushi when they saw that the tiny eatery was closed early this summer. Over the past year and a half, chef Stephen Shaefer had built up a fervent following for his imaginative rolls composed of raw fish shipped weekly from Hawaii — mahi-mahi, pumpkin swordfish, kaku (open-water barracuda) and barramundi, among others. Though one could order all of the standard bearers here — salmon, eel, avocado, carrot, etc. — what made Shaefer's sushi doubly creative were the unusual accouterments he wielded, morsels such as mango, shiitake mushrooms and pickled vegetable, or fukujin zuke.
A wall separated Stebu from Blackback, which had its devotees for its cozy, congenial bar and rotating roster of microbrews and imported beers. This summer, the two business owners joined forces, knocked the wall down and spent a few weeks renovating the kitchen; and by early September, Shaefer was again wielding his sushi knives — now for their combined clientele, though only Wednesday through Friday. (On Saturdays, customers can order premade rolls).
The new Blackback is twice as large as it was, and the chalkboard that covers one wall lists a menu of "backcountry" pizzas, calzone, wines and, of course, the latest fish that Shaefer is serving up. Last night, I chose shutome, or Pacific swordfish, but asked Shaefer to prepare it however he saw fit. So he nestled slivered, pickled radishes and butternut squash against the mild, firm fish for a slightly puckery and novel maki roll. The tangy Little River Roll — pungent smoked trout and crisp, fresh asparagus rolled in sushi rice and again in feathery dill — tastes somehow like spring and autumn on the same plate. And the striped marlin and yellowtail nigiri sushi were buttery soft. Shaefer clearly loves creating beautiful things, and the folks at Blackback clearly love serving well-crafted and hard-to-find brews. Here's hoping a few beer lovers discover sushi, and vice versa.