Sunday, March 27, 2011

15 East is More Than Just One of the Best Sushi Restaurants in NYC (food)

It had been quite a while since my amazing solo dinner at 15 East last year. This time, I went with my friends DC and SC. The meal was spectacular yet again, but what made the experience special was how accomodative the service was.

This was extremely important to us, especially that evening. DC had been having some serious back pain, and needed to be seated comfortably. The chairs were by far the most comfortable chairs I've ever sat in at a sushi counter. I've even been to a sushi place far more expensive that only had backless stools at the sushi counter!

More importantly, DC was not a fan of raw fish in general. We took three seats at the sushi counter, but they had no problems with DC ordering off the kitchen menu. In fact, they were nice enough to bring us the menu from their (same owners) wonderful restaurant next door, Tocqueville. SC and I, meanwhile, had the omakase with some soba and tempura added to our menu, as I'd heard very good things about their soba and tempura.

Dinner starts off with edamame in seaweed salt.

As DC was deciding on his menu for the evening, the sushi chef showed us the big octopus for his famous poached octopus. We had come for the second seating, so he'd already cut a good number of tentacles off the beast.

WATERCRESS GOMAE Our amuse was a watercress salad with sesame paste. Crunchy, refreshing, and simple. A good start to the evening.

TASTING TRIO Our omakase started off with a trio of slow poached octopus, smoked ankimo with spicy daikon, and a simmered small fish with a sweet and sour sauce. The octopus was remarkably tender, and the pieces were cut much thicker than I remembered, which made it an even better bite texture-wise. Dipped into the seasalt, the flavor was superb. The smoked ankimo (steamed monkfish liver) was also delicious, with a nice sauce that matched well with the smokiness. The small fish had a very light sweet and sour sauce that was quite enjoyable. While we had these, they started DC's meal with a house-made miso soup.

DUO OF WILD SALMON AND YELLOWTAIL For DC's first course, a beautiful plate of salmon and yellowtail, infused with sweet saikyo miso and accompanied by soy ikura (salmon roe) butter.

Our captain grating the fresh wasabi in preparation for our sashimi course.

ASSORTED SASHIMI Clockwise from the lower left: mirugai (giant clam), saba (mackerel), cherry salmon cured with red vinegar, hamachi (yellowtail), behind the shrimp head was a seared Japanese black bass also known as "chicken fish", botan ebi (sweet shrimp, with head), and otoro. Everything was fresh and lovely. The shrimp was very sweet and the cured salmon was an interesting approach.

A closer look at the seared "chicken fish", which I thought was the most interesting piece on the plate, as it was completely cold despite the searing.

BABY ARTICHOKE AND SPRING GARLIC RISOTTO with house made ricotta cheese. DC's second course was this lovely looking risotto from the Tocqueville menu.

CHILLED SOBA Our soba course was delicious. The sauce was light, everything mixed together well, and the soba was very good.

SEASONAL TEMPURA Our tempura course consisted of two fritters made of tiny shrimp, mitsuba, and bamboo shoots. Excellently fried with a terrific texture. For me, this was absolutely amazing in terms of taste. The shrimp taste was so strong it almost felt artificial, like it was some chemically created chip flavor.

We then moved on to the sushi part of the meal.

JAPANESE SEA PERCH Upon her first bite, SC could immediately tell that the sushi rice was superior, especially compared to our trip to Masa.


SEARED KINMEDAI The smokiness from the searing worked really well with the kinmedai (golden eye snapper). Since this was seared, we urged DC to have a piece, and the chef was nice enough to sear it a little bit more "well done" for him. DC really enjoyed it.

AKAMI Lean tuna which was extremely flavorful. Lots of places have some variation of toro. But to have lean tuna muscle be so tasty was a treat.

JAPANESE PICKLED VEGETABLES A nice assortment of palate-cleansing flavors for DC in preparation for his main course.

CHUTORO Medium fatty tuna is usually my favorite type, being more melt-in-your-mouth than other variations. This was wonderful.

OTORO Sometimes the fattiest tuna can be too fat and become a bit chewy, but this was perfect.

KATSUO Early spring bonito is hard to find and one of my favorite pieces of sushi. I actually asked for an extra piece as I liked this so much.

CHERRY WOOD SMOKED DUCK For DC's main course, he got the smoked duck served with shiitake mushrooms, scallions, and braised satsuma yam. DC enjoyed this very much, even though the smoking meant that the skin wasn't crispy.


Our handsome master sushi chef, Masato Shimizu, showing us how tiny the baby snapper was.

SMOKED SPANISH MACKEREL This had a smoky flavor that was very interesting with the sushi rice.

SANTA BARBARA UNI This variety of uni (sea urchin) is usually the cleanest-tasting one, and the one most recommended for those new to uni. This was one of the better versions of Santa Barbara uni I've had.

HOKKAIDO UNI This uni from the Northern Japanese island had a much brinier and oceany taste to it, and was my favorite.

MAINE UNI The uni from Maine is of the same type as the one from Hokkaido, just in different waters. I found this one to be too funky, with a weird aftertaste.

All three unis side by side, with Maine, Hokkaido, and Santa Barbara, from left to right.

ANAGO The final piece of the omakase was the sea eel, covered with a terrific sauce that was not overly sweet.

CHOPPED JACK MACKEREL We're superhuman eaters so we pushed on beyond the normal omakase. The chopped jack mackerel was mixed with ginger, scallion, shiso, and miso. It had a delicious and bright flavor and was quite unique.

HOTATE Japanese sea scallop was very fresh-tasting and sweet.

TUNA COLLAR The chef likes to refer to this piece as being from the cheek of the fish, but it doesn't matter where it's from when it's this delicious. Lightly seared (well done sear for DC), it was a great mix of fat and flesh.

A last look at his box of tuna cuts, representing the front side, back side, belly, and cheek. The box was obviously much fuller when the evening started, but it was close to 10:30pm at this point.

TAMAGO Our final piece from the sushi chef was the egg custard. He explained some of the ingredients that went into this, but I was too busy stuffing my face to remember what he said. This cake-like, slightly sweet piece was a perfect way to end a long meal.

Except that we weren't done, and ordered desserts as well. These were pleasantly comped by the sushi chef when the bill came.

GREEN TEA AND WHITE BEAN CREME BRULEE This was really interesting. The white bean is just slightly sweet, and is a good bridge between the sweet burnt sugar and the slightly bitter green tea. It also added a little grittiness to the custard which I found very enjoyable.

SHIRATAMA PARFAIT Green tea ice cream with red beans was a very tasty combination.

BAKED FUJI APPLE WITH VANILLA ICE CREAM There was a terrific range of textures to the apple dessert.

In addition to the massive amounts of food, we also drank a good amount of wine and sake. The sushi really is amongst the best in NYC, but what really separates 15 East from other sushi restaurants is the quality of the cooked food from the kitchen, and the extremely accomodative service. A truly wonderful experience where both sushi aficionados and their non-sushi eating friends can have a great meal together.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Going Overboard at Marea (food)

It's been well over a year since I've been to Marea, which was my second favorite restaurant behind Eleven Madison Park in 2009. I'm happy to say that the food is still stellar. While I've had both the 4 course prix fixe ($89) and the pasta and crudo tasting menu ($125, but they seem to be fazing it out) before, this time we went a la carte because I wanted to try the whole fish. It took a while working with the vast menu to plot the a la carte course of attack, but I think we did a very good job, even if we did go a little overboard.

To start, we had the signature RICCI, which is sea urchin draped in lardo with a little sea salt over a crostini. It's great, with the warm rich lardo a terrific pairing for the unctuous uni. But here's the thing. Every time I go there, I ask for a wedge of lemon and squeeze a few drops over it. I think it balances everything and makes it even better. If you've had the ricci here before, I strongly suggest trying it my way. If you've never had it before, I suggest trying it as the chef intended before adding the lemon juice.

Also joining us to start the meal were SARDINES, house marinated and served with arugula. It seemed a bit stingy at three tiny filets to an order, but they were absolutely delicious. The marinade was well balanced and the arugula was a good pairing. We could have eaten many more of these.

Here was a preview of our branzino to be salt-baked. While my friend DC is a huge dover sole fan, I managed to convince him to go with the branzino because you don't really find wild Italian branzino at many places. The ones they have average two pounds, and are meant for two, but we split the flesh amongst the three of us and just ordered more from elsewhere on the menu.

Our amuse was a butternut squash soup. The texture, combined with the sweetness, made me feel like I was drinking syrup.

For the most part, DC kept on his diet and ate vegetables. This simple salad of greens and vinaigrette is literally the only full plate of vegetables/salad on the menu. The other vegetables come as sides.

It was really hard, but we narrowed it down to four choices for our crudo course. Starting from the bottom were SPARNOCCHI. Side striped shrimp, lemon, black lava salt, served on a thin cucumber slice. The shrimp were super sweet and the cucumber and lemon made it a very refreshing first bite. Next was the LANCIA, which was marlin with sturgeon caviar and mussel vinaigrette. The firm flesh of the marlin held up well to the very tasty sturgeon caviar. This was good stuff. I'm also pretty sure that there's much more caviar on the a la carte order than on an order that comes with the prix fixe. The next piece doesn't seem to be on the current menu, so I don't have a description. I remember that it was a type of mackerel served with shisito peppers, and that there was an acidic note that went well with the strongly flavored fish. The final selection on the top of the plate was the TONNO, which was a cube of very fresh tasting bigeye tuna with an oyster crema and crispy sunchokes. The crisp on top was really important to this bite, adding a saltiness to the flavor in addition to the crispy texture.

We then moved on to the antipasti. First up was the RICCIOLA. Lightly poached yellowtail, yogurt, oven roasted pepper, hen of the woods, and whitefish roe. The yellowtail was cooked beautifully, and I really liked how the yogurt and the roe went together with the fish.

Another one of his signatures is the ASTICE, which features nova scotia lobster, burrata, eggplant al funghetto, and basil. This is unique because you don't normally see lobster and cheese paired together. Everything works really well together, from the creamy textures to all the flavor components playing important roles, especially the basil.

However good those were, this was the dish that I thought was truly stellar. The POLIPO was grilled octopus, smoked potatoes, pickled red onion, chilies, and tonnato and it was absolutely wonderful. From the outrageously tender meat with a slight char on the edge of the tentacle, to the sweetness of the sauce mixed with the smoked potatoes, this dish just wowed.

For the pasta course, SC and I decided to split two pastas. First here was the TORTELLI, lobster ravioli with bagna cauda and trout roe. While I enjoyed this, and there was definite lobster flavor, I think I much prefer a previous version I had here when the lobster raviolis were mezzalunas.

This being SC's first time here, we obviously had to have the signature FUSILLI with red wine braised octopus and bone marrow. There is so much complexity at work here, and yet the components are balanced in harmony, such as the richness of the bone marrow and the acidity from the tomatoes.

A nice little yin yang effect going on here.

Still sticking to his diet, DC had a side of ROASTED BEETS with RICOTTA SALATA while we were having our pastas.

Because getting a whole fish wasn't over the top enough, I added one seared langoustine which was delicious. While we didn't get to see the fish still in the salt crust, you could tell the cooking method just by tasting it. The fish was so incredibly moist and flavorful. The fish came with four sauces (sicilian caper and wild oregano, citrus lemon, tomato with olive and caper, and parsley with basil) and they all worked well with the beautiful flesh of the fish. I couldn't pick a clear winner.

The whole fish also comes with two sides, but I guess I didn't take a photo. We had the BRAISED ESCAROLE with ANCHOVY and the ROASTED BRUSSEL SPROUTS, minus the pancetta. DC liked the crisp outer leaves of the brussel sprouts, but would've preferred the inside to have been more tender. I thought the escarole had too strong of an anchovy flavor. While it might have been a good side for another entree, the delicate fish did not need to be accompanied by something so strong.

A selection of little biscotti to start the sweets.

Still staying light, DC had the sorbet selection with mandarin orange, green apple, and cassis mint. All were nice but I was most impressed by the green apple, which managed not to be too tart.

SC had the fromage blanc PANNA COTTA with mandarin orange, pink peppercorn, and thyme.

I had the AFFOGATO, with zabaglione gelato, espresso and amaro. This was so so good that I had another. Yes! I ordered another one following this and polished it off just as quickly. This affogato really will rank amongst the best you've ever had.

A small selection of petit fours to finish off the meal. I think there was meyer lemon gelee, pistachio, and chocolates with salted caramel and espresso flavors.

As a parting gift, this lemon-flavored cupcake that was really big and dense.

Okay, so between the five separate a la carte courses, adding a langoustine, and having two desserts, I may have gone more than a little overboard. But the food was just so delicious across the board, and extraordinary at times. I'm very glad I had an opportunity to return to Marea.