Masato Shimizu, one of the most talented and well-loved sushi chefs in NYC, recently left New York for personal reasons to go to Bangkok, Thailand. I've always been a big fan of Masa-san, and omakase dinners with him were always among my favorite meals. I look forward to the day when I can eat at the restaurant he'll open up in Bangkok. In the meantime, I want to take the opportunity to highlight a few of my favorite bites from two meals at 15 East during his final farewell month, and celebrate what made Masa-san so special.
There are many talented chefs in NYC. Many of them also act like asshles. Masa-san, on the other hand, was humble, gregarious, funny, and always happy to educate his customers. In addition to this and other laminated diagrams, he was also known for the well-worn mini-encyclopedia of fish that he would pull off his book shelf to explain the more obscure species of fish he would serve.
MARBLE SOLE ENGAWA WITH SEA GRAPES AND LIVER SAUCE
Engawa refers to sashimi taken from the fin of a flatfish, usually fluke or flounder. It has a unique crunchy texture, which was quite interesting with the sea grapes which also have a unique crunchy texture. The firefly squid were so delicious I asked for seconds. The umami and texture were just like biting into the gooey/chewy deliciousness of shrimp heads, except without having to deal with the shell. As far as I can recall, Masato was also one of the earlier sushi chefs in the city to consistently serve Japanese seafood less well-known in the states, along with uni from Hokkaido and Kyushu.
SPRING KATSUO WITH GINGER AND SCALLION
SMOKED SPANISH MACKEREL
Katsuo is also known by its more common name, bonito. Yes, the same bonito that gets shaven into flakes for use in Japanese dashi soup stock or wriggling on top of fried tofu. While katsuo as sashimi is often served tataki style (seared), this was fresh and the flesh was more moist and had a springier texture without the searing. The spanish mackerel was smoked for two hours over cherry wood, and was probably the best bite I've had all year. In fact, with its luscious mouthfeel and richeness of flavor, it might be the best smoked fish I've ever had, including the smoked sturgeon at Eleven Madison Park. Masa-san told me that he picked up these two things from a 1-Michelin star and a 2-Michelin star sushi restaurant while in Japan.
While I've extolled the virtues of dining at the sushi bar at 15 East with Masato, that doesn't mean that I'll stop going to 15 East now that he's left. Two of the more underrated aspects of dining at 15 East that don't get enough mention are the excellent service and tasty desserts. The front of house is absolutely first rate, with well trained staff and a knowledgeable sommelier. Meanwhile, the desserts are wonderful and refined. The mineoka tofu is not actually tofu but rather a rich milk pudding with a deep flavor, the simplicity of which contrasted well with the more complex flavor combination in the mochi.
The thing that I found most amazing during these two meals at 15 East was not the food, but the emotion of it all. Most of the sushi bar customers were regulars, and there were toasts, hugs, and amazing stories. One guy told me about his first date with his now wife back when Masa was at Jewel Bako. Another guy and his buddy once ate at the sushi bar at 15 East every week for about 30 weeks. One guy had the facade of the 15 East restaurant decorated onto his groom's cake for his wedding. Just a wonderful influence that went beyond his skills as a chef.
I truly wish him the best in the next leg of his life's journey. But until I get to eat at his next restaurant in Bangkok sometime in the future, I'm glad that I have this blog so that I can relive some of those joyous meals he's served me.