I've shared so many amazing meals with amazing people this past year that it's hard to pick a favorite. Some of this might be a recency bias, but my meal in December at 15 East was just so incredible and enjoyable from beginning to end that it's my choice for favorite meal of 2011.
I've written about 15 East before, but this meal was a much more complete experience than previous meals. I let the chef do his thing and was wowed all the way through. I went with two foodie friends and the gorgeous photos and videos(!) you'll see here are courtesy of Cheeryvisage.
While we were waiting for our seats, they were nice enough to offer us some complimentary champagne.
A preview of the wonderful bounty from the sea we were about to enjoy.
The meal started off with an amuse of belly button mushroom with chrysanthemum leaf.
SLOW POACHED OCTOPUS with sea salt, ANKIMO (MONKFISH LIVER) with spicy radish and sake vinaigrette
The first course of the chef's omakase was the signature slow-poached octopus. It had a rich umami flavor and was wonderfully tender. Ankimo is one of my favorite things and this was quite good.
The whole octopus plopped onto the sushi bar as the chef cuts from the tentacles.
MAINE SEA URCHIN IN SHELL Maine uni is actually my least favorite of the unis one usually gets in restaurants, but this one did taste fresher and creamier than normal, although it's unclear whether I'm affected visually by seeing it in the shell.
ISE EBI SASHIMI Although this was from San Diego, the chef did say that this was the same clawless spiny lobster variety as the famously expensive Ise ebi.
Just to show how fresh this lobster was. PLEASE DO NOT WATCH IF YOU ARE SQUEAMISH
The flesh was delicious and sweet, and the knife work was excellent, with slices of perfect size and texture.
SASHIMI PLATE FEATURING: HAMACHI (YELLOWTAIL), ARCTIC CHAR, SPANISH BLUEFIN CHUTORO, SABA (MACKEREL), BOTAN EBI (SPOT PRAWN), SEARED ISAKI (GRUNTFISH), AND LONG ISLAND AOYAGI (ORANGE CLAM)
The large fish slices were tasty and the spot prawn was very sweet, but the real winners here for me were the seared gruntfish, which had a lovely smokey flavor from the searing even though it was cold, and the orange clam, which came from one of the largest pieces of such a clam I have seen at a sushi bar.
In fact, here's a video of the clam. The chef does this to kill the clam, and the freshness and tensile strength is apparent as the clam stretches and shrinks back to its original shape.
COLD SOBA NOODLES WITH HOUSE MARINATED SALMON ROE
The soba here is lovely, with a simple traditional cold soba preparation. The key here is the salmon roe, which come in fresh and whole and get marinated in house. This makes them less salty and more delicate in texture.
Some extra salmon roe for us to appreciate them individually. Each egg popped with flavor under the delicate skin.
ISE EBI TEMPURA with smoked sea salt and sudachi
Well-fried, tender lobster meat, heightened with extra umami from the smoked salt and citrus.
We weren't sure on the sake, and they were nice enough to bring a tasting of three for us to choose.
We ended up with the seasonal URAKASUMI HIYAOROSHI sake, which was the smoothest sake I've ever had. The flavor of sake was clearly there, but without that rice wine burn that I'm not really a fan of.
KANPAI! Cheers to the chef!
His face was covered in that last pic, so here's one of Chef Masato at work.
SHIMA AJI (STRIPED JACK)
MADAI WITH UME (RED SEA BREAM SNAPPER WITH PLUM PASTE ON TOP)
I found this rather unique, as I've not had plum on sushi before, but it works here with the robust fish.
SEARED KINMEDAI (GOLDEN EYE SNAPPER)
One of my favorite pieces here. The searing definitely makes it, and I prefer it to the kinmedai I had at Masa.
A look at the chef's box of various cuts of tuna, from lean to fat.
AKAMI (LEAN TUNA)
While lean tuna is what one gets when one orders "just" tuna (maguro), I find the akami both here and at Masa to be leaner, redder, and more robust in taste than tuna I've had elsewhere.
CHUTORO (MEDIUM FATTY TUNA)
I prefer chutoro to otoro when it comes to sushi, and this was perfect deliciousness suitable for a single bite as the fat melts with each chew.
SANMA (PIKE MACKEREL)
SAYORI (NEEDLE FISH)
A very interesting texture as the fish itself is firm yet so thin. Almost like how perfectly cooked shrimp would be.
IKA (CUTTLEFISH) WITH SUDACHI
I'm usually not big on things like octopus and squid, but this was very tender without needing scoring, and brightened up by the citrus.
SHIRO EBI (TINY WHITE SHRIMP)
I first had these at Kurumazushi, and these things are just sooo sweet. Sweeter (not in a cloying way) than any other sweet shrimp.
SANTA BARBARA SEA URCHIN
Santa Barbara uni is larger and creamier and my favorite of North American uni.
HOKKAIDO SEA URCHIN
But my favorite in NYC is the Hokkaido uni here, with a dirtier, brinier taste of ocean.
A look at his large trays of uni.
ANAGO (SEA EEL)
Warm, rich, and full of fish flavor without too much reliance on the sweeter sauce.
TAMAGO (EGG CUSTARD)
Our meal had ended with the anago, but I had to get this egg custard and specifically requested it. A traditional preparation not available everywhere (though they do have it at Yasuda, it's not as good as this version), it's made with egg, minced shrimp, and mountain yam. The key is the technique in cooking both sides, creating a cake that is airy yet more robust than a sponge cake.
ISE EBI MISO SOUP
One last course made from our lobster. The hot soup was well flavored with miso and the head and tomalley of our lobster.
DESSERT PLATE FEATURING: PUMPKIN FLAN WITH ROASTED CARAMEL SAUCE, SOBA TEA ICE CREAM, CHESTNUT RED BEAN CAKE, STRAWBERRY
The chef gifted us this assorted dessert plate, and I really enjoyed the soba tea ice cream, which had that rich, slightly bitter flavor, yet rounded out by the creaminess. I think 15 East has some of the best desserts for a Japanese restaurant in NYC.
We were the last ones in the restaurant, and they sent out some nice chocolates, although these may have been petit fours from Tocqueville next door.
15 East is my favorite Japanese restaurant in NYC. The sushi is first rate, prepared by someone who actually apprenticed his years in Japan. The rice is among the best in NYC (different, but comparable in many ways to Yasuda), and the traditional Japanese cooked items such as tempura and soba are terrific.
I also believe that 15 East offers great value. While the Ise lobster is a more expensive delicacy ($120 per lobster, comprising 3 courses: sashimi, tempura, soup), the base omakase is $140 and well worth it. Most importantly, it fills you up. While many people claim to spend less at some of the top sushi restaurants in NYC, they do not eat like I do, and I've never gotten out of a place like Yasuda satisfied for less than $250.
These weren't actually all the photos from the night, and in fact David Chang was eating there when we walked in. For all the photos, check out Cheeryvisage's photoset.