Craig’s birthday has always been an excellent excuse to splurge at a high-end restaurant, the kind of place I couldn’t justify going to the rest of the year. Usually I pick a place that piques my curiosity, or a place I’ve been dying to try for a long time. Last year we visited Momofuku Ko, the year before–and it was quite a year–Per Se and, the year before that, Blue Hill.
This year, it finally occurred to me: all this time, I’d been choosing places I really wanted to go to without really factoring Craig into the equation. Sure, he loves food and loved all these meals, but would he have picked these places himself? Probably not (reading over my shoulder, he says: “I would’ve picked Blue Hill.”) Regardless, there’s one kind of food that Craig absolutely loves and that I just enjoy which, if this birthday was going to be about him, I would have to pursue: that food is sushi.
To be fair, my feelings about sushi are based mostly in ignorance. My early sushi experiences were all pretty humdrum–conventional rolls and supermarket take-out sushi near my college–and then, eventually, I graduated to slightly better sushi once I moved to New York. But, in all these years of caring about food, I’ve never forked up the dough to have a genuine, world class sushi experience. The kind of experience Anthony Bourdain described when, after going to Masa for the first time, he said: “I have been to the mountain top. I have seen…things. Everything is different now.”
Masa, of course, is famously expensive: approximately $400 a person to eat there. I like Craig, but not that much. When Frank Bruni left his post as restaurant critic for The New York Times, he answered reader questions and one of the questions was: “What’s the best sushi place [in New York]?” Frank, after naming Masa the best, wrote: “I’d like to single out Sushi Yasuda as well. There you can have a wonderfully intimate, pampering omakase experience — a seat at the counter, a chef seemingly devoted to you and just a few other diners, sushi being prepared just moments before you eat it — for under $100 a person, not counting drinks. Still a major treat, but much, much more manageable.”
That sounded perfect for Craig’s birthday so, a week prior, I made a lunch reservation, confirmed it the day before and on Craig’s actual birthday (a week ago today, February 2nd) I got him on a train to Grand Central (“Don’t ruin the surprise!” he yelled when I offered to give him a clue), navigated him up 3rd Ave. and over to 43rd street. And there he was face to face with his birthday present:
“Ooooh,” he said. “Sushi!”
We went inside and the place was teeming with business men in suits (we were the only ones in jeans, though it by no means has a dress code.) They led us to a spot at the counter (I’d requested the counter after reading in Steven Shaw’s book Asian Dining Rules: “There are two types of people eating sushi at a Japanese restaurant: those at the sushi bar, and the tourists.”)
A hot towel came our way and I quickly told the waitress we’d both like the omakase. She told the sushi chef, standing right in front of us, that we wanted omakase in Japanese and he smiled, nodded and quickly got to work.
In case you missed my post a few years ago about omakase (see here) the word means to “entrust” or “protect.” In essence, you’re entrusting the chef to serve you the best he has to offer. And our chef, with a grin on his face, placed the following–a piece of fatty tuna–in front of us:
“I put wasabi and soy sauce on for you,” he said, shooing us away from the soy sauce on the table.
“You eat,” he said indicating that we should eat with our fingers. And, indeed, on the table in front of us was a little napkin for wiping our fingertips after:
How to describe that first bite?
That bite shattered, in my brain, every piece of sushi I’d ever eaten before. The first thing I noticed was the texture; soft as butter, it practically melted on your tongue. Next, I noticed the freshness of the fish–how clear the fish flavor was. Finally, I noticed the balance: the slight heat from the wasabi, the salinity from the soy sauce. It was a mind-blowing piece of sushi and Craig and I both turned to each other with big grins on our faces.
Before we could say anything, another piece of sushi appeared before us:
“Sweet shrimps,” said the sushi chef.
I’ve always hated raw shrimp at sushi restaurants (in fact, I made it a a point, at Taro Sushi in Park Slope, to request “no shrimp” every time I ordered their sushi lunch) but this was a different story. Here, the shrimp were sweet and delicate and encased beautifully with the rice.
The sushi kept coming, piece by piece. I think this was yellowtail:
Tazmanian trout and something else (I forget):
There was orange clam:
He, in fact, served several pieces of orange clam. I’ve never had orange clam before–not sure what it’s referring to, really (I thought, maybe, geoduck?)–but the texture wasn’t as pliant as the fish, a bit firmer, but nicely flavorful.
There was freshwater eel and saltwater eel:
There was a subtle difference between the two; the freshwater was a bit mellower than the saltwater, but both were sweet and rich, almost candy-like.
And then there were these two pieces, my favorites of the whole meal–an oyster and king salmon:
The oyster was incredible: everything you’d want an oyster to be (briny, evocative of the sea) but even better the way it was dressed with the soy sauce and served on the rice.
And then there was that king salmon. It was a sublime piece of fish; the kind of bite you take and linger on for the next few minutes. I’ve never tasted salmon like that before and not sure I will again; it deserves its name.
The uni, too, was extraordinarily good; decadent and intense, smooth and creamy:
There was this tuna roll, which was cold on the inside (there was some kind of chilled tuna mousse):
Then a sardine and something I don’t remember:
This might be a good time to mention the speed at which all of this was happening. I’ve never seen a chef work faster than the chefs in front of us at Sushi Yasuda. Craig took this video with my camera and it is NOT sped up; it looks like it’s in fast forward:
We sat down at 1:30 and by 1:50 (I looked at my watch) we were already deep into our meal. A little after 2, the chef asked if wanted any more sushi. Craig and I looked at each other and since this was omakase, and I supposed we were entitled to it, we said “sure” and he gave us more tuna, more eel, and–on my request–a piece of octopus (Craig doesn’t eat octopus, it’s his favorite creature):
This, actually, was my least favorite piece of sushi we had there; I thought the octopus–as often happens with octopus–was a bit too tough.
Our sushi master crafted us one final piece of fish (I don’t remember which):
And we were done. Well, I ordered fruit (I always like some kind of dessert):
And then we were really done.
I’m glad we went for lunch because, as many Yelpers have complained, they really do speed you through. If we’d gone for dinner and they’d sped us through so quickly, I may have been really disappointed.
As it was, this was a life-changing sushi-eating experience for me (and Craig too). For the first time, I saw sushi as a real art; the majesty and the simplicity of it, the deft use of the knife, the meditative nature of the eating ritual, and the visceral pleasures of touching it with your fingers as you guide it to your mouth. And the sushi itself, of course, was so beautifully crafted, so lovingly assembled, it’ll be difficult to ever eat mediocre sushi again.
The rest of Craig’s day was pretty special too: we went to the Morgan Library (which was kind of close by), the Ace Hotel for some Stumptown coffee, then (another surprise) “Rock of Ages” on Broadway where Craig–who loves 80s hair bands–had the time of his life (I liked it too) and, finally, a lowkey dinner at Bar Centrale.
But it’s that sushi lunch that’ll stay with us the longest, the kind of lunch you don’t soon forget. I may have set out, this year, to make Craig’s birthday about him, but I ended up gifting both of us with the gift of sushi enlightenment. Happy birthday, Craig.