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March 25, 1990|PAUL LASLEY and ELIZABETH HARRYMAN | Lasley and Harryman are Beverly Hills free-lance writers.

NAGASAKI, Japan — The man poised his wooden-poled net above the water and studied the fish intently. Patiently he watched the mackerel, flounder, snapper and yellowtail swimming below him. Spotting the perfect catch, he waited for just the right moment, then made one, blindingly fast, staccato motion. Instantly a five-pound flounder was thrashing in the net.

It was a scene typical of an ocean-side fishing village. But we were in Tokiwa, a large modern restaurant in downtown Nagasaki, and the fish was to be lunch.

"We Japanese think that the fresher the fish is, the better," said Miyako Eto, as we watched the drama from our seats behind a butcher-block counter built around a large indoor pool. Eto works for a shipping company in Nagasaki, and was helping us get a taste of local dining.

The fisherman at Tokiwa also was the chef, and he carried his catch, still flopping and flapping, to the open kitchen at one end of the pool. With the dexterity of a master swordsman, he killed the fish and immediately began the process of cleaning and filleting.

About five minutes later a waitress wearing a kimono offered us a plate of the freshest sashimi , or raw fish, we've ever had. Artfully arranged in the shape of the original fish, the pieces were topped by a paper-thin lattice-work of white radish and served with a light dipping sauce of soy and vinegar.

There was no wasabi horse radish on the plate. Eto said that each fish served in this style is accompanied by its own particular sauce. The sashimi had a clean sea flavor and smooth texture unlike any we'd encountered before.

In addition to the sashimi we had the "set" lunch, a combination of fish cakes, miso soup (a rich broth with soybean curd and green onions), several kinds of sashimi, rice, pickled vegetables and squid tempura.

We were shocked by the price. Seven dollars for the set lunch and an additional $20 for the fresh fish--hardly the astronomical price people complain about. This was an example of how to dine well in Japan without spending a fortune.

Nagasaki is a major fishing port, so its seafood not only comes in staggering variety but freshness is of paramount importance.

"Here in Nagasaki," Eto said, "the sashimi and sushi are much fresher than any you'll find in Tokyo, and cost half the price. The fish market is in the center of town, and our fish is usually caught the night before it's served."

Sushi, raw fish served with rice and wasabi in bite-size pieces and often flavored with vinegar, is another common seafood combination served in Japan.

With the proliferation of sushi bars in the United States, we felt at home at Ten-ichi, a small sushi restaurant on a narrow side street in downtown Nagasaki.

The first floor had the familiar bar where the sushi chefs were busy filling orders. We headed upstairs to a private room where we sat on cushions and ordered sushi.

We began with spinach marinated with bits of fish, tofu and sesame seed. Next came baby oysters, accompanied by a light soy sauce and grated white radish seasoned with chili pepper and chopped green onions. The sushi arrived on a large platter. It included fresh clams, red snapper, octopus, yellowtail, tuna, squid and mackerel, a rich, oily fish with a light flavor that was irresistible.

The next course was a large piece of lightly grilled tuna flavored with bits of fresh orange. That was accompanied by a teapot of fish soup. We poured the broth into tiny cups and sipped it, then ate the shrimp, ginko nuts and seaweed left in the pot.

The complete dinner cost about $50 per person and was worth it. But you can dine less expensively by just ordering soup, rice and sushi. Common sushi combinations cost between $1 and $2 apiece. More exotic selections, such as yellowtail, may cost $3 to $6 apiece. By pointing and asking for recommendations, we found we could order quite well in most sushi restaurants.

We didn't think we could leave Nagasaki without eating noodles at least once, because visions of "Tampopo," the hit Japanese comedy film about the search for the perfect noodle, were still vivid. We had exceptional noodles at Kozanro, a restaurant featuring Chinese specialties.

Nagasaki's culinary heritage is exceptionally diverse because the port was Japan's only window to the world for more than 200 years. Eto said we must try thick white noodles, a local specialty that originated in southeast China. They are round, thick and flavorful, and are served in a large bowl of rich chicken broth with pieces of mushroom, cabbage, fish cake, shrimp and pork.

We also tried udon, pan-fried noodles, topped with sliced beef, vegetables and steamed fish cakes. A serving of noodles costs about $5 and makes a complete lunch or dinner.

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