Note: This review was written in 2014, before Masato “Masa” Shimizu left for Bangkok in 2015 where he opened Sushi Masato. 15 East is no longer a sushiya.
You know that thing in your life that is just “there”? Maybe it’s a weird item in your home, maybe it’s a person who lives near you that’s never said a word to you, or maybe it’s a restaurant that you’ve heard mentioned a million times but never visited. It may be a terrible analogy, but that’s what places like 15 East and Sushi Yasuda are for me. I get asked all the time why I haven’t reviewed them for my site, and to be honest, I really didn’t have a good reason. They were just…there.
Since you’re reading a review on 15 East, you’ve likely figured out (I hope) that I changed my mind. What happened? 15 East has been generating an incredible amount of buzz recently, likely due to it’s executive Chef, Masato (known as “Chef Masa” by his frequent customers). What makes New York unique (and this is both good and bad), is that everyone eats out, which in turn means that every second storefront is a restaurant.
The sheer volume of restaurants (estimated at 51,000 in 2013), means that great reviews and lots of buzz are required to break through the noise. So when I was looking for a place to take a friend visiting from out of town, I settled on 15 east. The pressure was on – my friend was an omakase virgin, someone who likely thought that the definition of daring sushi was seeing cream cheese in his maki (something long time readers will know that I hate).
The food at 15 East not only met my expectations, but more to the point, it was some of the best sushi I have ever had. We made sure to sit with Chef Masa, which was one of my favourite itamae (sushi chef) experiences. He didn’t say much, but he didn’t need to; I was transfixed by how he smoothly formed his nigiri without even looking down. To transfix me is no easy task; just while writing this review I’ve also been focused on my phone, television (TV for short), fantasy sports teams and a wikipedia article on The Beatles.
One of the great initial signs at 15 East was that we were able to customize our order; seriously, if a Japanese restaurant can’t alter their omakase to accomodate some of your preferences, that should be a major red flag. While the 15 East tasting menu is usually Kaiseki style (so a mixture of sushi and cooked dishes), I wanted my friend to have the full omakase experience; so we asked for it. And then Chef Masa went to work.
I don’t want to be one of those sushi bloggers who talks romantically about the experience (you know who you are), but this was truly a journey. For instance, we had three pieces of Uni one after the other – Santa Barbara (pictured right), Maine and Hokkaido. It may seem like a small touch, but consider the difficulty of sourcing Uni from three different places, when the majority of customers could care less. On top of that, the Uni was incredibly fresh. Sea Urchin roe isn’t the same as the two eggs you had for breakfast; if it’s runny and brown, that’s not a good sign.
Also on the menu was a tuna flight of Maguro (lean tuna), Chu-toro, O-toro and – my favourite of all – the rare and delicious Kama-Toro (fatty tuna from the collar/jaw area). The Kama-Toro was an add-on at the end, so make sure to ask for it. Chef Masa literally took a 12 inch block of the stuff and dropped it in front of me, prior to (smartly) taking it away before I could steal it. As I’ve written before, it’s always a positive sign when you can ask the sushi chef to “bring me something I haven’t tried tonight” and he can oblige. Conversely, Shuko could not do that, and that’s part of the reason why it’s not one of the highest rated places on this blog.
The Atmosphere is perfect for the location. High ceilings? Check. Darker ambiance with a well-lit eating spot perfect for pictures? Check. Separate rooms for the sushi bar and the dining area? Check. (Lazy blogger using a checklist to convey multiple awesome traits of a restaurant? Check.)
So the sushi is delicious. The atmosphere is phenomenal. There is a chef that is incredibly well-known. The staff is incredibly attentive. And most importantly, the pictures came out great. All that adds up to an incredible experience, and one of the highest rated places that I’ve ever been to.