The Upper East Side Hosts a Conclave of Superlative Sushi Restaurants
With wild bluefin as controversial and rarefied as blood diamonds, good sushi is doomed to be a pursuit of the affluent, and the occasional treat for everyone else. And so it makes sense that the Upper East Side, a zip code with incomes larger than Kanye West's ego, would play host to the greatest concentration of well-above-average sushi restaurants. In a 20-block radius, there are six sushi destinations, three of which would comfortably place among the top 10 in the city.
A few blocks north of the 59th Street Bridge, Sushi Seki's late hours and expedient service attract raw fish zealots, chefs like Eric Ripert and Daniel Boulud, and the prep-schooled progeny of the 1 percent, who blow their allowances on toro and the chance to sip illicit alcoholic beverages. Deep into the night, the restaurant's lamp-lit façade mimics the Ritz Diner's, its relic neighbor, making Seki look like a greasy spoon for the rich. Chef Seki defected from Sushi of Gari on East 78th Street, a haven for creative, composed nigiri like salmon with roasted tomato and onion sauce, and tuna with soft tofu. These and other pieces from the Gari playbook make appearances on Seki's menu, but it's a spicy scallop hand roll that gets top honors. Traditionalists may balk, but the balance achieved between snappy nori, sweet bivalve, spicy mayonnaise, and crunchy tempura flake is undeniable; it's American excess neatly wrapped in a seaweed casing. But Gari proprietor Masatoshi "Gari" Sugio still has his fair share of tricks, as with a wobbly morsel of seared foie gras. At first glance it seems hackneyed, a too-easy luxury ingredient that has no business sitting on top of seasoned rice. But pairing the fatty offal with daikon and a reduction of balsamic vinegar is surprisingly avant-garde.
After working for both Gari and Seki, Steven Wong opened Neo on the Upper West Side in 2002. Eight years later he closed shop, eventually moving Neo to the First Avenue space of Tsuki, the domain of septuagenarian sushi master Kazutoshi Maeda. Wong also engages many of Gari and Seki's techniques, but his time spent at Nobu undoubtedly influenced a nigiri of salmon topped with caviar and gold leaf. North on East 83rd Street, Donguri, the Ito En beverage corporation's last remaining restaurant (for a time, they operated a kaiseki restaurant above their Madison Avenue tea emporium), serves superlative Japanese home cooking in a hushed, cramped interior that looks less like a restaurant and more like a friend's primly curated dining room. There's no actual sushi, but the sashimi sings, and the dishes featuring raw seafood—such as a special of chilled soba noodles with sea urchin and grated mountain yam—maintain a restrained complexity.
Long before city diners started submitting themselves to hours-long tasting menus at the whim of hyper-focused chefs, the concept of omakase—putting your fate in the chef's hands—was being perfected in Japan. Like their tasting-menu counterparts, restaurants that adhere to this rigid standard usually live and die by the quality of their food and service alone. The Upper East Side boasts two restaurants employing this ethos, separated by a single city block separates them. Sushi Sasabune, the third outpost of an L.A.-based chain whose origins can be traced back to the legendary Sushi Nozawa, has been the baby of chef-owner Kenji Takahashi since 2006, when the omakase cost $60 (it now hovers around $100). The menu has since expanded into a 20-piece parade of finely tuned flavors, including blue crab–stuffed squid rings with rich, sweetened soy, and sustainable bluefin tuna. Takahashi sends his creations out in pairs and trios, making the sequence feel a bit like a multi-course kaiseki meal. The meal is almost always the same, beginning with a plate of albacore sashimi and ending with a blue crab hand roll. When it's in season, Sasabune has the softest monkfish liver in town, easily living up to its name as foie gras of the sea. But where Sasabune provides diners with the usual sushi accoutrements, Tanoshi Sushi allows only ginger to cleanse your palate. Now that word has gotten out, the 11-seat bar is booked a month in advance, though cancellations appear as at any restaurant, and they'll usually try to squeeze in solo diners. The meal is a changing array of 10 different pieces of intricately cut and presented compositions, ranging from soy sauce-preserved zuke sushi to giant futomaki rolls with instructions to "eat it all at once for maximum flavor." On any given night you'll find atypical selections such as black throat fish, crab brains, or shad sliced and braided to show off its speckled skin.
The neighborhood gets a lot of flak for its aging, old-money residents and lack of subway access, but for those with a penchant for devouring marine life like Poseidon himself, the isolation is perfect for channeling your inner predator.
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