Saturday, July 16, 2011

15 East of New York City: the Sweet Shrimp Sushi is So Fresh, it's Still Twitching

The Sushi of 15 E.15

It's a beautiful, sunny day on 15th Street in New York, and inside its resident Japanese restaurant (appropriately named 15 East), the chef behind the sushi bar picks up a still-alive-and-kicking sweet shirmp, its beady black eyes staring blankly as its body bucks and thrashes. And then, a deft maneuver as the chef turns his back–did he use a knife or his bare hands?–and the ama ebi is beheaded. The group of young adults who sit at the sushi bar stare aghast as the chitinous carapace with attached antennas and legs (now a centerpiece for the assorted sushi palette presented to them) still twitches. Its body, shelled and pink and delectable, has just been served as nigiri, ready to be eaten and enjoyed as only freshly killed sea creatures can be.

The onlookers didn't flinch. They didn't gasp. They giggled and gawked for a moment and then dived in, oblivious to the ongoing but ever-decreasing flails of the fading crustacean's appendages. Several minutes later, I glanced over and sure enough, the thing was still moving.

It doesn't get better than live, and those who have consumed sweet shrimp as fresh as this know that it makes all the difference in taste. Just make sure you don't scream and drop the head should you pick it up by its feelers to pose it for a picture like I did, thinking it's dead since it's been severed from the rest of its body for longer than five minutes and it's no longer even spasming, and the head suddenly begins to thrash violently in response...unless you want a good laugh.

At 15 East, be prepared to spend top dollar for top-quality sushi that's a bit on the traditional side: $6 for a single piece of soy-marinated tuna zuke nigiri, $6 for one of the oh-so-rare and strong-flavored shako (mantis shrimp); and as much as $12 for uni or otoro. Want a roll? Be willing to pay $18 for a six-piece negi toro maki. Or for something different, how about a plate of six kumamoto oysters served with pickled radish for $21? The wasabi here is raw and real but for some reason, strangely and soothingly mild. The chef grates it from a stalk of wasabi until a mushy, light green muck begins to mound on the plate.

15 East
15 E. 15th Street, New York, NY

NYC's Best Maine Lobster Sushi is at Bond St.

Fabulous Sushi at Bond St. of NYC

If it's one thing you can count on in New York, it's being able to find some marvelous Maine lobster (this is due in part, presumably, to New York's proximity to Maine). At Bond St., a swanky Japanese restaurant in the NoHo part of town, the cold water lobster nigiri has a succulent, fleshy translucence reminiscent of the taste and texture of ama ebi. For the final finish, the fresh lobster is brushed with a sweet soy that includes the surprising ingredients of sake and steamed lobster tomalley puree, which enhance its seafood essence.

The Red Snapper Tacos were a disappointment (I had ordered them with Sushi Samba's tangy tacos in mind; Bond St. should specify in its menu that cooked fish is used in this dish). The "6 Bond Nigiri," however, more than made up for the snapper snafu.

The "6 Bond Nigiri" set is $28, compared with the Sashimi Sextet for $26 (featuring blue fin tataki, snapper, kanpachi, octopus, salmon tartare, live Maine lobster) and the Seared Belly Quartet for $20 (this comes with otoro, yellowtail, salmon and snapper).

The "6 Bond Nigiri" showcases otoro with caviar, gold flake and fresh wasabi; shima aji (striped jack) with chili daikon and green onion; salmon with kombu; fluke with shiso and plum sauce; Maine lobster served gunkan-style with seaweed wrapped around it; and scallop with a sliver of green olive on top. (Normally this set comes with sweet shrimp instead of Maine lobster, but I had asked for a substitution just to try the lobster with the fish selection I preferred.) For a refreshing change of pace, try the Sundried Tomato and Avocado roll with garlic ponzu oil and green tea salt.

Bond St. is about as upscale and spacious as trendy sushi restaurants come. Located in a historic brownstone with a distinctive Soho style, Bond St. boasts three floors–the ground floor, which features the lounge and a sushi bar; the second floor, with a 75-seat dining room and sushi bar; and the third floor, which has a tatami room that can be used for private engagments. The price of reserving this room starts at $200 on a weekday and can go as high as $500 on a weekend, depending on the number of guests in the party.

Unfortunately for Angelenos, the Bond St. sushi bar that had been open in Beverly Hills has closed down, but the one in Miami still stands, and it's been open for more than 10 years. New York's location has been in business for 15 years and is still going strong.

Bond St.
6 Bond Street, New York, NY

Seviches and Tiraditos, Maine Lobster Taquitos, Samba Park Roll and "King Crab, Three Ways" at Sushi Samba Restaurants in New York City

Doin' the Samba in New York

Just when I thought I had finally completed the Sushi Samba tour (my trip to both of New York's Samba locations–7th and Park Avenue–would have checked off the list: Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas, and the Big Apple), I learned that a new one was slated to open in London soon. Sushi Samba fever is spreading...obviously. One must wonder when the chain will finally spring one up in L.A. The waiting is the hardest part. It's torture.

New York's Sushi Samba is famous for being the film location of a "Sex and the City" scene–Samantha splashes her cocktail at the face of her philandering lover as she scoffs "Dirty martini? Dirty bastard!" and saunters off–but the opinions concerning exactly which of the city's two restaurant locations the part was shot in are conflicted; a guide for the Sex and the City TV tour says it is one and a restaurant manager conjectures it is the other. But considering the décor in both places is similar–a Latin-inspired tropical lime-and-orange motif–it's easy to see how they can get confused.

But aside from a fun and funky color scheme, Sushi Samba has a reputation for being a hip and happening hangout with an energetic, club-like vibe. Its Latin-Japanese fusion menu is unique and tantalizing; nothing in this place hints at traditional sushi, and that is perfectly fine in its own right. You appreciate it as a marriage of flavors from two distinctly different cultures. Sushi and sashimi get a whole new treatment here with layers of South American-inspired spices and ingredients: farofa, lime, aji amarillo-key lime mayo, chimichurri ponzu, jalapeños, red bell peppers and mango. Luscious, plump giblets of Peruvian corn are served with sashimi tiraditos and even various anticuchos.

One of the fun aspects of taking a Sushi Samba tour is noting the subtle menu variations from one region to the next; even the two in New York are slightly different. For instance, there is always one signature roll at a particular Samba location that the other ones don't have. At Sushi Samba 7 on 7th Avenue, it's the "Samba 7 Roll," which comes with crispy lobster, scallion, cucumber, celery, jalapeno, and wasabi-chimichurri sauce for $16. For the same price, at Park Avenue's location, the signature maki is the "Samba Park Roll," with spicy lobster, scallion and passion fruit mustard. (Vegas' Sushi Samba Strip has one with Maine lobster, mango, tomato, chive, and crispy rice; it is wrapped with soy paper and served with an amazing peanut curry sauce. That one is $19 and worth every red cent. Chicago is home to the Samba Rio Roll, with lobster tempura, except it comes with mango, tomato, chive, crispy rice, soy paper, and red curry).

Mix and match the seviches and tiraditos at Sushi Samba to make your own four-part platter: my choices were tuna with yuzu soy, hickory oil, toasted garlic; tuna with grapefruit, serrano, cilantro and coconut; shrimp with passionfruit, cucumber and cilantro; and kanpachi with yuzu, sea salt and black truffle oil.

The Crispy Taquitos served with fresh lime wedges are to die for at New York's Sushi Samba 7, especially if you choose the Maine lobster-filled ones as opposed to yellowtail. The ingredients are frisée, palmito and jalapeno dressing (I have yet to try Sin City's version of this, which comes with lemongrass, frisée and hearts of palm). These miniature tacos are served with the crispiest shells, and the jalapeno dressing is shockingly tart as well as spicy–a perfect complement to the overflowing chunks of red and white Maine lobster meat. Even the lime is served with style: one wedge props the tacos upright while the other sits inside a shot glass.

Unique to Sushi Samba Park, there is the large plate called "King Crab, Three Ways"–broiled with aji amarillo, tempura with yuzu kosho emulsion, and amazu seviche (with red onions and strawberries) for $32. It's a veritable paradise for crab lovers, and a must-try for those who dare to resist becoming a crab convert.

Sushi Samba also has a sumptuous alcohol menu available; popular drinks include Latin classics like the caipirinha and the mojito, both of which include lime and muddled fresh fruit. A signature cocktail known as Samba Juice, which contains raspberry, watermelon-infused rum, açai, passionfruit, creme de banana and guava, is ordered quite often, as is the Kumori, which has nigor sake, shochu, gin, muddled cucumber, and a nori-salt rim.

At all of Sushi Samba's locations, Latin lounge music with Brazilian beats emanates from the speakers as you dine, adding to the South American-themed ambience.

Sushi Samba 7
87 7th Ave. South, New York, NY


Sushi Samba Park
245 Park Ave. South, New York, NY

Squid Leg Sushi, Fluke Sushi and Hand Rolls at New York City's Kuruma Zushi

Kuruma Zushi of New York City

Tucked away on the second story of a plain Midtown building, Kuruma Zushi is a secret piscine palace for the discerning. Diners enter the nondescript edifice and ride up a cramped and dodgy elevator to access the quiet, understated hideaway where chef Toshihiro Uezu has been serving top-of-the-line, traditional sushi since 1977.

The menu appears rather ordinary, with nigiri ranging from $3 to $12 per piece, until you read the part that says "Toro Caviar: Very Fatty Tuna Tartare with Russian Beluga Caviar & Scallion–$150-$200" and gasp!

Simply because I had never seen it as a nigiri option, I asked for the $3 single-piece squid tentacle sushi. Aside from decently seasoned sushi rice and the band of nori, the squid itself did not have much of a taste at all. The single piece of fluke sushi, which was $5, was tasty but not tasty enough to keep me from asking for a saucer of ponzu sauce to accompany it. The kampyo and ume-shiso hand rolls I tried were enfolded traditionally as well–more cylindrical than conical in shape, and with a small flap of seaweed around the bottom to hold it in place.

The service is unsmilingly, rigorously stiff; the atmosphere daunting. The waitress stands right behind your seat at the sushi bar and watches your every move, but perhaps it should have been interpreted as courtesy, as perhaps she were simply standing in attendance, suggesting she was at my beck and call?

Kuruma Zushi
7 East 47th Street, New York, NY

New York City's Bar Masa: Overpriced Food

New York City's Bar Masa as a Masa Substitute

Like most people, I would agree that $450 (not including tax and gratutity) is quite an outrageous amount to drop on a single omakase sushi dinner. This is the reason I chose to first sample the sister restaurant of New York's famously expensive Masa, known as Bar Masa, the more casual and less expensive version located right next door.

Unlike Masa, which is strictly omakase and lasts three hours, Bar Masa actually has an a la carte menu; however, it is just as snooty and prohibits photography as I have heard is true of Masa. From what I understand, Bar Masa features only some of the dishes that are presented in the mothership next to it, as the exclusive and exquisite dishes of owner Masayoshi Takayama can only be experienced if one commits to the costly chef's choice.

If the a la carte items I ordered at Bar Masa had blown me away so much that I absolutely could not have left New York without having the indulgent feast at Masa, I might have succumbed to weakness and dropped the dough for what is supposed to be the mother of all Japanese restaurants in the city that never sleeps (and tried to live with the fact that photography is not allowed). But the sea eel sushi with yuzu zest I ordered ($8 for one piece) was dry and insipid, and the cut roll with Alaskan king crab, avocado and wasabi tobiko, while tasty, was certainly not worth $32 for eight bite-size pieces. (I managed to sneak a photo of the latter, right before the unrelenting waitress descended and reminded me there's no picture-taking allowed. I played dumb and apologized, surprised she didn't force me to delete the image from my camera.)

Many unique items abound on Bar Masa's menu, however–dishes you won't find anywhere else. Under the "vegetable" sushi category you will find "summer truffle" sushi for $28 a piece; and the toro canapé with caviar is $18. The uni with yamura pasta costs $48, but if you add summer truffle to it, then it's $68.

Although the New York Times has given Masa a stellar review, many yelpers have negative opinions about the place. However, most of the criticism revolves around the attitude, service, and the amount of the bill, rather than the quality of the food, which most agree is some of the best food they've ever eaten. Then again for that high of a price, it had better be good.

Bar Masa
Time Warner Center
10 Columbus Circle, 4th Floor, New York, NY