There’s a reason you’ve never met anyone who’s eaten raw eel: They’re probably dead. Eel blood is poisonous — which makes it all the more remarkable that the snaky creatures remain so popular in their cooked state that freshwater eels (called unagi in Japanese) are now an endangered species. Firmer and fattier than anago, or saltwater eel, the freshwater stuff is commonly broiled before serving. Anago, by contrast, is usually prepared simmered in sweetly seasoned water, which turns the flesh supple, almost like pâté.
Shinichi Inoue, the Nagasaki-born chef who presides over Sushi Inoue (381 Lenox Avenue, 646-766-0555), bucks tradition with a formidable piece of sea eel nigiri he poaches before applying a torch. “It’s from my hometown,” he remarks while depositing the plump, gleaming jewel onto a matte-black ceramic plate.
Most anago is served skinned, but Inoue prefers his integument intact, the better to show off the eel’s gorgeous spots. He completes the presentation by brushing sweet, sticky tare sauce over the charred meat. Densely creamy, caramelized, and briny, the result makes for a masterful crescendo to dinner at this uptown oasis.
Inoue, who’d earlier won a Michelin star for Tribeca’s subterranean Sushi Azabu, does many things differently here in Harlem. The upshot is a dining experience that’s steeped in ritual and yet unique. It’s evident in his technique — from the textural smoothness and bracing heat of fresh, hand-grated wasabi to the two rice recipes he uses, which vary in seasoning and temperature to match different cuts of fish. And while the ceremony of sushi forms a large part of its appeal regardless of venue, it’s difficult to imagine a place more reverent than this one. The 44-year-old Inoue recites blessings over his multiple weekly seafood deliveries (mostly from Japan) before preparing the catch, and it took the fastidious chef six months to find a sous he deemed worthy of a tryout. Before then, the pace of the omakase at the expansive sushi bar occasionally lagged as the perfectionist worked perhaps too ceremoniously.
A kaiseki-style procession of sushi and composed plates is $100 for twelve to fourteen pieces of nigiri with accompaniments, or $120 for ten to twelve pieces plus a plate of stellar sashimi. (Diners at the bar are restricted to set meals, while à la carte options are offered to those seated at tables.) Our suggestion: Throw down the extra twenty bucks for thick hunks of buttery yellowtail, weightless, soufflé-like egg custard, and extravagantly marbled fatty bluefin.
But go down either path and you’ll be entertained by a fascinating opener: three small tastes that might include tiny raw Japanese white shrimp topped with a chile pepper; wafers of rich, delicate monkfish liver; or a shot glass of mozuku seaweed floating in vinegar dashi. A gargantuan “Jumbo Pacific” oyster the size of a fist usually arrives next, cut into thirds and spritzed with lemon, followed by a beautiful hot pot of whitefish and vegetables in a gently saline broth. Even here, the attention to detail is apparent — the kitchen crew cuts carrots into flowers and stuffs precious baby bundles of cabbage leaves with spinach.
Then the sushi starts rolling out: two kinds of pungent, unctuous horse mackerel; giant sweet shrimp from Canada; golden-eye snapper with a strip of copper skin that Inoue sears for additional flavor and firmness. On a recent visit, the chef placed buri nigiri in front of us, explaining that the pale-pink slabs come from the yellowtail’s belly while the leaner sashimi he’d served earlier hails from the back of the same animal. He caught our gaze as we devoured each piece, trying to gauge our reaction.
Per convention, Inoue ends the savory portion of his omakase with a hand roll, though he precedes the finale with a stomach-soothing soup; before digging in to bundles of fatty tuna chopped with zippy pickled daikon radish, we sank our spoons into deep bowls of cloudy, long-simmered shrimp broth complete with the crustacean’s bobbing head.
The restaurant is BYOB for now, although bottles of sake and Japanese whiskey already tauntingly line the shelves behind the bar. We found decent cheap suds at the corner bodega up the street, and there’s sake — which the Sushi Inoue team will serve you in their own carafes — available at liquor stores a bit farther afield in the neighborhood.
Included with the kaiseki menu, desserts add welcome value to the meal rather than seeming like afterthoughts. They’re light creations that lean curiously European, often putting trendy matcha to the test. Cake, panna cotta, and even a Mont Blanc — the mountain-inspired dessert that is, essentially, a pile of sweetened chestnut purée and whipped cream — all buzz with the grassy astringency of the powdered green tea. Bookending a lengthy lineup of tastes, the delicate sweets feel like proper gifts. So does Sushi Inoue.