“Sushi Diva”. I coined that term last year, but it still remains one of my greatest accomplishments, even after literally getting married 4 months ago (sorry honey!).. I can’t really define what a “Sushi Diva” is, but I certainly can spot one when I see it. And likely, so can you. These fun folks re the ones who spend 30 minutes talking about the differences between Hokkaido and Santa Barbara uni. They’re the professors who can’t stop bothering the sushi chef with inane questions. And they’re the ones who refuse to try new concepts for no other reason than it doesn’t strictly adhere to what they saw in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. Why is this important? Well, last month when I went to Ise, I was a sushi diva. The truth will set me free.
Ise is the brand new, trendy sushi restaurant in the Cooper Square area of the East Village. If you’re passing by, the restaurant is absolutely beautiful from the outside, save for the bizarre menus hanging in the window, typed up on white letter paper. In recent years, the east village has become somewhat of a boon for good, moderately priced sushi; Ise joined Jewel Bako, Kura and Hasaki as other options in the area. But getting a reservation was hard – not because of packed crowds, but because management ignored my emails So in the process figuring out my reservation – and acquiescing to my requests for good lighting – the 10 other people in the restaurant likely thought I was the Mariah Carey of Sushi Divas (90’s reference, don’t ask questions).
Like most good-but-not-great sushi restaurants, Ise offers fresh – and delicious – fish, that is unfortunately let down by the tough rice that is stuffed into each piece of nigiri. The Chu toro was fresh and colourful, both as nigiri (top left in the horizontal picture below) and chopped with scallions in the incredible negi toro maki (left below). The hotate (scallop) was about as perfect a cut as I’ve seen, and the sear on the trout (see pic on the right) was limited just to the ends – as it should be. The nigiri – on the platter below – were part of the assorted sushi set, priced at a reasonable $36. If you – or the people you’re with – don’t like sushi (somehow), then there are plenty of options as well. Ise trumpets their soba noodles and chirashi bowls, which have received rave reviews online and looked absolutely delicious at other tables. The wide diversity of the menu is why I might recommend ordering Kaiseki ($100). Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese tea meal featuring a series of smaller courses. For your purposes, think of it as a Japanese tasting menu featuring a wide variety of fresh ingredients, not necessarily just sushi or even fish.
Yes there were hiccups with management straight up ignoring me before I visited, but I found the waitstaff attentive, accommodating, and polite, despite the fact that I asked to be moved 43 times to take advantage of better lighting (like I said, I’m a Sushi Diva). In fairness, there are three distinct spaces within Ise, each of which might appeal to a different type of customer. At the front of the restaurant, a bar (adjacent to the street facing window) is as chic as I’ve seen in NYC over the past few months. The perfect place for a casual drink or meal. Towards the back of the restaurant, an open dining concept features tables for families and couples looking for something more traditional. Tucked away behind that room is the sushi bar, reserved strictly for kaiseki customers only. If you value seclusion, you’ll enjoy the set-up. If you prefer a modern sushi bar, with granite and dim lighting (similar to that of Kosaka), you will be disappointed. For tourists, Ise is a great sushi restaurant, but it might not satisfy your thirst for exploration; no offense to Cooper Square residents, but the area outside of Ise is not much to look at. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.