Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Sweet Summer Umami at 15 East (food)

Usually when I think of the best sushi, I think of the winter season and unctuous, fatty, well-marbled fish. A recent visit to 15 East, however, presented a gorgeous selection of sweet umami, beautifully representing the summer season. Umami is usually defined as a savory taste, but as someone who grew up in Hong Kong with MSG being a normal home cooking additive, I think of umami as purely "enhanced flavor", which includes sweetness as well (鮮甜 in Chinese). To me, it's kind of like how adding salt brings out an extra level of sweetness and flavor in chocolate.

15 East is still a special occasion restaurant for me, and I was actually there for a celebratory birthday dinner. My birthday was in early July, but head chef Masato Shimizu was on vacation for 3 weeks, so we waited until he came back and had the dinner in early August. It was well worth the wait!

One of the things that 15 East is known for is its excellent selection of uni, and that night did not disappoint with uni from Santa Barbara, Hokkaido, and Kyushu.

The night started off with an amuse of simmered tofu with mushroom and okra on top. Simple, light, and refreshing.

Chef was his usual playful self and played along, adding a candle to his signature octopus. Birthday cakes are for amateurs. Real foodies have a birthday octopus. Excellent as always, the octopus was soft yet bouncy in texture, with some smoked sea salt to highlight its flavor.

This is a relatively new dish in his repertoire, matching the sweet and creamy Santa Barbara uni with the slightly more textured yuba, which had a stronger soybean flavor than that of tofu. The wasabi brought it all together and every spoonful was a delight.

I found the raw pieces of abalone a bit too crunchy and hard to my liking. Being Chinese, I strongly prefer my abalone cooked, and especially braised for a long period of time. It didn't really matter because the scene stealer here was the broth, made from the "juice" of the mirugai (geoduck). Incomparably sweet yet with a clean taste of the ocean, this was just pure heavenly essence of sweet summer umami, highlighting the freshness of the abalone.

While often very similar from visit to visit, the sashimi plate does incorporate certain items that are seasonal. This plate featured Spanish bluefin otoro, botan ebi, seared isaki, shima aji, mirugai, marbled sole, and Okinawan sea grapes. This was accompanied by a small bowl of ponzu sauce with the liver of the marbled sole, and freshly grated wasabi. Everything was delicious, although I'm generally not a huge fan of raw flatfish. I found the sea grapes very interesting because of their unique texture. If you leave the shrimp head intact, they will fry it for you after you are done with the sashimi plate.

The summer umami overload continued with a concentrated dashi broth that took the sweet and tender conch meat to new heights. Ayu, or sweetfish, is a must-have staple of the Japanese during the summer months. The sweetness of the fish goes beyond the flesh. You know how when you eat whole grilled mackerel, whether at a Japanese or Korean restaurant, you try very hard to avoid biting into that area with the guts because it's so bitter? Well the liver of the ayu also gives you that punch of bitterness, but it leaves no bitter aftertaste! It reminded me of bitter melon in that way.

We started with beer then sake, as I told chef that "beer before liquor, your knife skills get quicker." The Echigo Koshihikari “Rice Lager” was surprisingly clean in taste, with a nice sweetness that fit the dinner's theme.

Chef said that we needed to have some more conch to go with that sake. The conch was tender and meaty, but once again it was the sweet umami in that simmering liquid that was unforgettable.

The progression of sushi included hiramasa (yellowtail amberjack); tai (snapper) with pickled plum; seared kinmedai (alfonsino, my favorite piece of sushi at 15 East); chutoro (medium fatty bluefin tuna); zuke (some marinated/pickled fish); baby sardines; kisu (whiting) with sudachi; ika (very tender squid) with yuzu; uni (sea urchin) from Santa Barbara (creamy and sweet), Hokkaido (tastes of the ocean), and Kyushu (kind of in between the two); anago (sea eel); and finished off with tamago (egg custard made with shrimp and yam, light like a sponge cake). I don't think I took photos of everything.

I love the soba at 15 East and think its some of the best in the city. The ikura which he cures himself is also excellent and not too salty, with each egg sac popping with flavor.

It was my birthday after all, and I wanted more! So we added a nice chutoro-scallion hand roll.

But this was what I really wanted after I saw someone else getting it. We added an uni-seared scallop hand roll. Sweet, briny, and smoky from the sear. The textures were also amazing, with the creamy uni on top of the seared yet still raw scallop on top of his excellent rice, all brought together by super crispy nori. Just heavenly bites.

Another great thing about 15 East is that their desserts are tasty, thoughtful, and well composed. While many top sushi restaurants will just end the meal with some fresh melon, I much prefer the desserts here. The rice pudding tempura was fun, but what stole the show for me was the mineoka tofu. Call it what you will, but it's essentially milk pudding that's gloriously fresh in taste and hearty in texture. It's a pudding/custard, but had a little grittiness that was wonderful and reminded me of the yuba from earlier. The brown sugar reduction was perfectly sticky sweet and the sesame flavor gave it some pop.

Labor day is upon us, and while summer may be ending, it's probably not too late to get one last taste of the sweet summer umami at 15 East.

15 E 15th St
(between S Union Sq & 5th Ave)
Manhattan, NY 10003

1 comment :

ChubbyChineseGirl said...

it looks good... after I'm off this japanese food high and miss Japan, I will have to visit 15 East again! love that birthday octopus !