Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sushi Yasuda, hit it before the master decamps for Tokyo

Sushi Yasuda has been one of the highest rated sushi restaurants in NY for some time now, and has been near the top of my must try list for a quite a while, but until recently I never got the kick in the pants I needed to actually call up and make a reservation.  The kick arrived in the form of information that Yasuda-san was leaving to open an 8 seat sushi bar in Tokyo, which caused me to make the call posthaste.  While I was not fleet of finger enough to secure a spot at the bar in front of Yasuda himself, our party of four did reserve the sushi bar and I still wanted to go and see him in action and enjoy a meal while the restaurant remained under his watchful eye.  I'm glad I did, as we experienced an onslaught of delicious bites, each a carefully proportioned composition of warm delicate rice topped with a excellent fish that led to a harmonious combination when eaten.  Outside of Masa, which I consider to be somewhat of a different beast, this was the best sushi I have had outside of Japan.

Outside there is no signage bearing the venue's name but just the small lit print of a fish above the entrance.  Not that the place is hidden; in fact it is quite lit and passersby can clearly observe the whole place through a large plate glass window.  We had a 6pm reservation, and our party was the first to arrive a few minutes before, as we were advised multiple times not to be late and that we had a mere 90 minute window to dine, and we did not wish to squander our time there.  I admit I was a bit concerned we would leave feeling hungry, rushed, or both, but we left quite full and happy.

Even from the other end of the bar, watching Yasuda-san work was impressive.  His hands at times seemed almost disconnected from the rest of his body, moving quite quickly, but precisely, so confident in their motion while he carried on conversation and maintained full eye contact with the patrons in front of him that his limbs seemingly had a mind of their own directing them.  But we were here for the sushi, and we were left in the more than capable hands of Chef Yoshi in front of us, pictured on the left.  I believe next to him is Mitsuru Tamura, who will take up the mantle when Yasuda-san leaves for Japan and passes the baton.
While I glanced at the short menu of appetizers from the kitchen, we ordered only sake and beer and told Yoshi we eat everything and otherwise left the choices in his hands.  Before I get to the pictures, let me address a couple things.  First, Yasuda is most well known for the quality of his rice, and rightfully so.  The flavor, texture, and mouthfeel, even the temperature, is very carefully calibrated to lift each piece to new heights.  (Although I do have to admit that one sole piece I found the rice a bit too warm, so they did not bat 1.000 for me, but pretty close.)  The second thing I had read often in other reviews is that the ratio of fish to rice was too low to fully appreciate the fish.  While I understand from whence this criticism comes, as the slices of fish did tend to the slimmer side when compared to other places, I found nearly all of my sushi to be quite balanced.  I agree the proportioning did shift the balance of the focus from the fish more towards the rice, but to my mind not in a deleterious fashion.  I believe this preparation to be quite deliberate and given the excellence of the rice, led to each piece being a masterful composition in its own right.  It is a slightly different experience then one might be used to, but I very much enjoyed it.  That said, I will concede that the one exception was the toro; I perhaps would have enjoyed that piece more had there been a bit more fish.  However, it was still great and did not stop me from getting a second piece as one of my last three bites to cap the meal.

Onto the sushi.  We started with Blue fin Tuna, for which I neglected to retrieve the camera.  Our second was Bluefin Toro:
Next we got two different pieces of Yellowtail, I believe Buri and Shimaaji.  (Forgive me if I misnote, misremember, or just mistake some of these identifications, I'm sure I've messed up a couple but I think I got most of them.)
Another thing for which I have seen raves about is Yasuda's eel, freshly prepared.  I was already had my hopes set high and was pleasantly surprised.  More than that.  I was blown away.  First I had the Shirayaki (fresh white freshwater eel) on the right, which I thought easily the best eel I've ever had.  That thought lasted until I tried the Anago (fresh dark sea eel) on the left, which, if not better, was close enough to make me think hard to decide which was best.  I think the Shirayaki wins, but both were unexpectedly delicious.
Shrimp:
Yet another notable experience at Yasuda is the flights of fish they often do, letting you try several similar fish, or different cuts of fish, back to back.  Here we had, L to R, Tasmanian ocean trout, White King Salmon, and New Zealand King Salmon:
Next was Oyster (Canada), Scallop, and Orange  clam.  The scallop was a standout we would revisit later.  The oyster was a briny delight.  I had read about a Peace Passage Oyster that is sometimes offered and came highly recommended, which I believe is different than what we got, and our Canada Oyster was the only oyster they had that night.  I hope to try the Peace Passage on a later visit.
Of the next three, the Gensaba in the middle was my favorite.  It was a tender and fatty mackerel that melted in your mouth, but, despite the fat content, it was less fishy that some lesser quality oily fishes can taste, and the delicate flavor of the fish really came through.
Spanish mackerel, Gensaba, Pompano:
Striped bass, Orato (snapper), Fluke:
Onto some Uni, always among my favorites.  I had hoped they would have uni from a couple different regions, but the only kind they had was from California, I assume Santa Barbara.  I had heard they sometimes get a special "export quality" uni from Maine with a distinctive taste that I would have enjoyed comparing to the California specimen, but it was not to be.  At least I got some Maine sea urchin from the John Dory the other day, so don't feel too sorry for me.  The California sourced uni they served us was excellent, delicious and clean tasting, and especially creamy.  Certainly up there with other good stuff I've gotten in the US, even if it doesn't measure up to my samplings in Japan.  I'd revisit the uni for my last bite.

Uni (California), Sweet shrimp, Squid:
Artic char,  Cherrystone clam, Octopus:
For the end of Yoshi's selections for us we each got three pieces of toro roll, with just a hint of scallion.  It is worth pausing here to talk about Yasuda's nori, as it is something special.  It was thin and crispy with a mild yet complex flavor.  I'm at a loss to describe it, but it was way better than your typical nori.  The chefs are aware and Yasuda is quite proud of the nori, made especially for the restaurant in Japan.  I think the kelp beds are tended to by mermaids or something, probably previously the product was destined only for the emperor.  (Speaking of the emperor, did you know that after WWII the US made him get on the radio and renounce his divinity?  Sweet.)
For the remainder of the meal, we asked specifically for what we wanted more of.  I wasn't sure how much room I had, but at the top of our lists was more eel since the first round was so fantastic.  Again, we each got one piece of freshwater and one saltwater, but they were different from the first ones we were served.  I was so anxious to eat them, that I devoured the sea eel before recording it, but I believe it was Sawani (fresh white sea eel).  The piece I did shoot I think was Unagi Kuro (fresh dark freshwater eel):
Perusing the menu to see if anything caught my eye, I asked for some Sardine and some Sayori  (needlefish), and as a bonus I got a delightful crunchy piece of cooked Sayori skin:
We were so enamored with the nori, that we did another (smaller) round of Toro scallion roll, just to get another taste.  (This was the largest miss of the night, as the fish was too cold, but it was still really good, it just could have been better.)  I really want to try a hand roll with the awesome nori next time, but we were running out of time and space, and I knew I wanted to finish with seconds of my favorites. 

And those favorites were the Uni, Scallop, and Toro.  All four eel preparations were right up there, but we had already revisited those.  These three were the perfect way to end my meal.
I must note, that while we went all out and got a ton of sushi, one of the greatest things about Sushi Yasuda, especially when compared to Masa, is that going all out is not at all necessary.  One could easily sit down and get just a handful of pieces and still get the same excellent quality with less of a hit to your stomach or wallet.  And speaking of wallets, Sushi Yasuda strikes me as extremely reasonable, if not outright inexpensive, when compared to the quality.  There are plenty of sushi places in the city that are almost the same price but fall way short in delivering excellent fish.  There are precious few places which I would not be hard pressed to justify going rather than returning here.

Remember, Yasuda-san won't be around for much longer, and while I hope the restaurant remains just as excellent, you never know.  (nb, they close from Dec 25th - Jan 10th; I believe Yasuda will stick around for a short while into January.)

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