No longer do we hunger for sevruga, osetra and beluga, the troika of Russian caviars. They’re unaffordable, overfished, unethical. The ultimate luxury snack is now bluefin tuna, Japanese-style: the lean (akami), the medium-fatty (chu-toro) and the fatty (o-toro).
If you have pricey seafood cravings without the wherewithal to finance them, I don’t believe you can do better than 15 East, located a half-block from Union Square in Manhattan and one building over from Tocqueville, which has the same owners.
The canopy of this long, slender restaurant promises sushi, sake and “modern Japanese cuisine.” 15 East delivers superbly on the first two.
For those who fancy the pyrotechnics of 21st century Japanese dining, this might not be your place. I know, because one of my guests insisted I not recommend 15 East, pointing out that “Morimoto has heated toilet seats.”
15 East is traditional, with few amenities other than service. There’s plenty of that. In fact, on one visit, a woman at the sushi counter with me ordered the omakase (chef’s selection) of sashimi but asked that octopus not be included.
A sushi-bar captain overheard and insisted she try a bite of the cooked octopus, which is poached in sake and tastes remarkably like pork belly. She was so delighted she henceforth referred to him as her “sushi concierge.”
The servers, both male and female, dress in black pants, black shirts, black shoes and, for brightness, charcoal-gray vests. They are well-educated in sakes, of which there are endless styles and categories.
While I am not a sake enthusiast, I found the unpasteurized versions fresh, flavourful and melony. Also, I am not generally a sushi-bar devotee. Too cramped. Too limited in culinary possibilities. And I feel clumsy mounting those too-tall chairs. I prefer tables, but the dining room here is small, stark and basically a study in infinite shades of gray: an Armani cafe.
I quite like this particular nine-seat sushi bar. The low-backed chairs are comfy, identical to those in the dining room. The sushi chef is Masato Shimizu, a veteran of Jewel Bako, the East Village restaurant that helped advance the concept of sushi as showy jewellery. He’s a genial fellow who must be prodded into conversation, but once engaged, he’ll willingly take on all questions.
Behind him is a small library of instructional sushi books, and he enjoys showing customers where their cut of bluefin originated.
My particular obsession happens to be medium-fatty tuna, the chu-toro rather than the o-toro. It can come from a number of different places, but on two occasions it was from the tail, and magnificent: creamy, glossy, meltingly soft. The quite-respectable fatty tuna, unlike the medium-fatty, was short of earth-moving.
Most of the sushi is Edo-style—the rice warm, the fish brushed with a sauce. Shimizu slices grooves in much of his fish, the better for the sauce to sink in.
I also like his willing acceptance of western idiosyncrasies. I tend to eat my sushi in two bites, not the obligatory one. I asked Shimizu if he minded.
“For me, I don’t care,” he said. “It’s simple. It’s just food.” He seems altogether sensible.
The price of tuna in a Japanese restaurant generally reflects the price paid for the raw material—the chef spoke of one bluefin tuna weighing 450 pounds that sold in the Tokyo fish market for $180,000 (Rs73.8 lakh). The tuna at 15 East is reasonably priced and the quality as fine as I require.
I recall the lean tuna (akami) from Jewel Bako being inordinately flavourful; it’s the same here, at $5 per piece. The medium is $8 and the fatty $12.
Other raw fish not to be missed are live scallop topped with grated yuzu and a squirt of lemon juice, savoury hamachi roll (Japanese yellowtail) and an appetizer salad of young bonito with two dressings: ponzu and an irresistibly tart-sweet vinegar gelee.
I don’t know that any of those three could be better, regardless of price.
Many of the items identified on the menu as “From Our Kitchen” and on the canopy outside as “modern Japanese” are dated. They aren’t undesirable—well, one was, Kumamoto oysters with a ponzu granita that had melted into puddles.
Wild salmon five ways seemed like a plate from a buffet line—a bit of smoked, a bit of poached and so on, plus a buttery salmon-roe sauce. Modern? Well, 20th century.
The “Colorado kobe”—give points here for clearly pointing out that it isn’t the superior Japanese beef—came sliced and stacked, accompanied by celery-root puree so pristine it did indeed taste Japanese. The “four-story hill farm chicken” is best skipped, in this case because it’s ahead of its time—few diners in this country are brave enough to relish medium-rare chicken breast, and I don’t believe it should be placed atop mushy, gooey Japanese pumpkin puree. Burp.
Five desserts are offered. Skip the too-heavy rice-pudding tempura, clever as it sounds. The ice creams (sake and ginger especially) and sorbets (particularly the coconut-lime) are superb, not just skilfully flavoured but also served at a cool, custard-like temperature.
One of my guests, a self-proclaimed tofu expert, gasped with awe at the almond tofu. I felt almost as pleased with the silken passion-fruit pudding, although it twice came with startlingly sour blueberries and bits of unripe mango.
Plate presentation at 15 East is traditional, too, which is why I ordered no sashimi for myself. I tasted it by averting my eyes as I snuck slices from the dish of a friend.
The elaborate arrangements of sashimi here and at many other sushi establishments often incorporate a crustacean cranium propped upright on the plate.
I once dined in Los Angeles with the actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the restaurant owner honoured his attendance by serving lobster sashimi accompanied by the head of the very creature he had carved for our lunch. The antennae were still moving.
A good reason to prefer sushi, wouldn’t you agree?
The Bloomberg questions
Cost? Prices range from $6 for edamame (soybean snacks) to $120 for either of two tasting menus.
Sound level? Wonderfully quiet.
Date place? Not for decor, but sushi—light, luxurious, sensual—is surely date food.
Inside tip? The sushi omakase at lunch—seven pieces plus one roll for $28—is an impossibly good bargain.
Special feature? The so-called clear soup frequently comes with a hamachi quenelle—a “hamatzoh ball” according to a friend. Don’t miss it.
15 East is at 15 E. 15th Street, New York. +1-212-647-0015.
(Alan Richman is a restaurant critic for Bloomberg News.)