Unlike so many of his colleagues, Naomichi Yasuda is a famous chef who personally prepared dinner for his guests every night at Sushi Yasuda. He didn’t miss a single service for the first seven years.
And then in January he left.
Relax. Yasuda returned to Tokyo, where he’s opening an eight-seat sushi restaurant. Rest assured, however, that Sushi Yasuda remains true to its owner.
You still will be offered hard-to-find fish, simply prepared. Kohada, a shiny Japanese herring, gets a light slick of shoyu; the clean oil lingers on the tongue. Coarse sea salt adds crunch to custardy sea urchin.
How civilized it all is. Until precisely 90 minutes from the beginning of your very good, very traditional feast, when you and your date are politely given the boot along with the $294 bill.
You’re informed of the time limit when booking, so don’t be surprised when the majority of your final, green-tea course is served, as was ours, at the host stand, which doubles as a counter.
Longtime Yasuda proteges Mitsuru Tamura and Tatsuya Sekiguchi were anointed to keep things conservative. The cost is, if not exactly a bargain, slightly less than the competition at this very high level: A chef’s selection of 19 or so pieces cost me just over $100.
Chefs at other venues like to brandish their knife skills with fans of sashimi folded across vegetables that look like ice sculptures. Not at Yasuda, where sushi, not sashimi, rules.
Cool fish warmed by vinegared rice is king. Mitsuru even raised an eyebrow when he saw I was flipping over the nigiri and placing the seafood-side on my tongue, giving my taste buds maximum contact not with the simple starch, but rather with a complex, coral-colored slice of jack mackerel.
Wrong. “Rice is the number one part of sushi. Fish is number two,” Mitsuru said. Lesson learned. No more flipping. Think of it as the Japanese analogue to Italian pasta, where the job of meat or sauce is to complement, not upstage, the noodles.
To prove this point, Mitsuru, like Yasuda before him, forms smaller-than-usual mounds of rice and tops them with slices of rock crab (insanely sweet), fluke fin (crunchy) or perhaps red scallop guts (like a mild sea urchin), also cut to fit. The result? There are rarely “rice-less” bites. These guys wouldn’t like hot dogs longer than the bun.
Wasabi is a whisper for mild fish like fatty yellowtail or buttery orata. It’s applied with greater effect for strong flavored mollusks. Orange clam, a pleasingly funky bivalve, collapses in the mouth with a sinus-cleaning sting of the Japanese horseradish.
Who needs mignonette when oysters get lemon, soy, sea salt and rice? They pop with intense minerality.
If you must have a starter, there are crunchy blowfish bites (like juicy chicken nuggets), fried fluke bone (sandy and coarse, like potato chips) and flash-fried shrimp (with green tea powder to keep the shellfish sweetness in check).
Ask for a seat at the blonde bar (tables are for beginners) and let Mitsuru feed you ‘till you’re full. Sushi sometimes comes fast, as many as a piece or two per minute, which means diners with normal appetites shouldn’t have to worry about the 90-minute rule.
But on busy nights the chefs can get bogged down making rolls and platters for those who haven’t gotten with the program, and service becomes more intense. We were asked to order dessert before we finished our entrees; we were invited to vacate our seats after a few minutes of tea drinking.
Perhaps Yasuda should take fewer diners under the new regime. No matter how impeccable the grilled bluefin cheeks are, a full stomach can become a painful stomach when rushed.
Rating: ** 1/2
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost: Omakase usually runs $100-$130 per person.
Sound Level: Moderate; 65-70 decibels.
Date Place: If you want to get your partner home fast.
Inside Tip: Lunch is less rushed but the raw fish sometimes is too cold in the earlier hours, numbing the subtle flavors.
Special Feature: Hot sake costs $6. Cold sake (choice of four) costs $10.
Will I be back: Yes, for the late seating.
Sushi Yasuda is at 204 E. 43rd St. Information: +1-212-972-1001 or http://www.sushiyasuda.com
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)