Yasuda: Sushi Supremacy–Service Not Included

We’re in violent agreement with NYC’s top critics that Yasuda is currently serving the finest sushi in New York (save for maybe the outrageously expensive $500+ per person proposition at Masa). The service; however, is abominable. To go… or not to go? (Never take sushi to-go, but that’s another story…)

 

(Photo credit: http://moreintelligentlife.com/files/tunalead.jpg)

 

I defer to Jamie Oliver for a lesson that he imparted to one of the trainees whom he took into his London restaurant Fifteen. Jamie made a name for himself in the UK as “The Naked Chef” gaining popular acclaim by cooking simple, rustic meals on the BBC while teaching average folk to become better cooks through the combination of a handful of simple, high quality ingredients. He will be remembered as the friend of Tony Blair who convinced the British government to remove processed and unhealthy foods from school lunches – though he was less successful when he tried to do the same in the US on his televised “Food Revolution.” Perhaps most impressive is his philanthropy, though, having taken into his restaurants hundreds of down-and-out youngsters which he trained to be chefs who have since moved on to successful culinary careers. Some number of years ago in a televised documentary about Fifteen, Oliver was teaching trainees about the importance of quality by sending them out into London’s Borough Market with £20 and the task of returning with the best ingredients they could find. When an apprentice returned with rancid scallops, Jamie asked why the student didn’t instead buy them from the fishmonger who was widely known to have the best seafood in the market – to which the trainee responded: “because he was a jerk!” You can imagine the content of Jamie’s stiff lesson which ensued; the crux of which highlighted that regardless of the source, a top chef should be after top products. The finest foods are directly a function of the quality of their ingredients so there can be no substitute or excuse for failing to procure the best. Period. … plus the profanities commensurate with any notable chef’s passionate tirade.

 

Jamie Oliver teaches his apprentices that there is no substitute for the best ingredients (Photo Credit: http://www.romania-insider.com)

While Jamie has a point in that I surely won’t be able to taste or even sense a fishmonger’s disdain toward the chef when I enjoy my perfect scallops – should we, though, as diners be just as unilaterally focused on the main ingredients versus the experience of consuming them when we are directly disrespected? In other words, is the greatest sushi restaurant necessarily the one with the best sushi? How important to the experience are peripheral factors – service, ambiance, comfort… In order to answer these most pressing questions, let me tell you just how luscious the sushi is – and just how cringeable you might find the service at Yasuda.

 

Eel is not simply eel at Yasuda: choose between at least three varieties on offer, which are unusually prepared from scratch and grilled on-premise – Anago (dark sea eel), Sawani (white sea eel), Shirayaki (light freshwater eel) - $4-5.50 per piece (Photo Credit: http://www.jandjeat.com)

 

All my friends know that I have OCD – everything has its (exact) place; everything must (always) be perfect. At Yasuda, those allowed the privilege of preparing sushi all have CDO – that’s OCD properly alphabetized. The rice is a revelation in and of itself – slightly warm, the perfect balance of acidy vinegar and sweet rice wine; cooked through, yet without any of the characteristic mushiness common to cheap sushi. I’ve even been told that nigiri pieces have been thoughtfully shaped to fit my mouth (!) … because it’s a cardinal sin of sushi-eating to take more than one bite.

The fish is heavenly. It’s sexy. It’s indulgent. It’s delicate. To sum it up, it’s perfect. Let’s start with salmon – what kind? Choose from up to six varieties depending on market availability and allow yourself to be schooled by one of Yasuda’s masters on the marked subtleties in flavor and texture between the King, Copper River, Silver, Trout … varieties. Class continues with a warning that there is no spicy sauce, Philadelphia rolls (gasp!) or other shenanigans of modern sushi to be found at this temple of tradition as such were all created in order to mask the imperfections of old fish (which makes sense: mayonnaise masks the muted flavor and oily shimmer of oxidized tuna). What you would be surprised to find, on the other hand, is that not one of the several varieties of eel on offer comes from a package; rather they are each painstakingly prepared on-premise each night – a very uncommon practice among sushi restaurants which usually procure unagi in prepared form. The akami (lean red tuna flesh) has the characteristic reminiscence of seawater which you’d find in a high-end Edo style Tokyo sushi bar. The toro (tuna belly) is soft and unctuous but never oily. You can even taste a marked difference in the high-quality imported seaweed wrappers (the cost of which I’m told is as much as 10x that of conventional nori), where an appealingly fresh “crunch” and delicate aromas of the sea heighten the experience of a perfect bite.

 

The legendary sushi counter at Yasuda – a light wood canvas upon which the freshest, most delectable fish in New York is proudly presented to eager diners. Be sure to reserve a seat up front; regulars will even specify their preferred sushi chef. (Photo Credit: https://foursquare.com)

 

Consistency may well be one of the most underappreciated hallmarks of a great restaurant. At Yasuda, there is an unwavering ability to deliver the very best; nay, the perfect rice, fish, seaweed and accoutrements – in each bite and on every visit, without fail. This may be partially due to the symbiotic (yet coldly formal) relationship which one develops with their sushi chef who is kept occupied by no more than yourself and perhaps a couple of others sitting immediately in front of him at the stained wood sushi counter. For such focused individuals, to look a customer in the eye and pass along a flawed specimen would be unthinkable on any one of some fifteen deliveries, as each nigiri is prepared and presented one-at-a-time, ready to be immediately consumed. Yet such dedication by Yasuda’s sushi masters also commands a diner’s full attention, inevitably resulting in countless interruptions of your conversation – often mid-sentence; an immediate return is required from your blissful state of what I like to call “dining zen” for a ceremonious transfer of the next bite on the master’s schedule. While to me it may indeed seem impossible to carry on a conversation at Yasuda, to the sushi chef it may be unfathomable for the diner do any more than admire, then savor his oeuvre in silent anticipation of the next offering. A fascinating inversion of “master” and “servant” which proposes an unlikely apposition to the natural expectation of hospitality from a restaurant in this lofty a price echelon…

As rarefied as the quality of sushi, and as minimalist in its evocation of feng shui as the dining room may be, there is an unmistakable aura of cacophony regarding all elements of service. Underscored by a desire to turn tables as quickly as possible, the “pleasure” of dining at Yasuda begins with the tribulation of securing a very tough reservation, is followed by an edict to reconfirm the day prior under penalty of automatic cancellation, and is concluded with the predication that your booking is not at 8:00pm but rather from 8:00pm to 9:30pm. I’m not joking – because they were not joking. If you’re not finished by then, be forewarned that the bill will come regardless of whether you are done ordering – or even chewing – as it once did when I was highly embarrassed in front of friends from London with whom I apparently did too much talking and not enough eating in the allotted table time. It goes without saying that there is no sense of pacing at the sushi counter. Chefs will continue production as quickly as you can (strike: “comfortably”) consume. Rather than a concern for your wellbeing, waitresses swarm behind the sushi bar, eagerly awaiting a deceleration in your feeding tempo. Not unlike the conventional recipe for popcorn in which the kettle should be pulled from the stove not after the popping ends but rather just when the popping gets a bit more intermittent, expect your server to signal your chef for the final count before you’ve even decided whether you can expand your belly for just one more piece of heavenly sushi…

I could go on, but I think you’ve got a good appreciation now for the experience at Yasuda. Take one more look, though, at the pictures below before you pass judgement, the beauty and intrigue of which should scroll like a palette of Warhol silkscreens…

 

Bluefin tuna ($4.50) is sexy as ever in its bright red coat, clad in a smidge of fresh-grated wasabi with a brushstroke of soy applied by its stylist. Don’t even think of accessorizing with extra soy or wasabi (or dare I say, even mounting a shred of homemade pickled ginger, however delicious it may be!) for fear of seriously insulting your personal sushi chef for the evening… (Photo Credit: yelp.com)

 

A lesson in yellowtails – Warasa ($4.25) vs. Shimaaji ($4.50) (Photo Credit: yelp.com)

Ordering whitefish at Yasuda is like ordering white wine at a wine bar: distinguish between Fuke, Branzino and Seabass, for example ($4 each) (Photo Credit: yelp.com)

A luxurious indulgence of Santa Barbara Sea Urchin ($6) and Big Eye Fatty Tuna ($8) (Photo Credit: yelp.com)

 

If I had to guess, the logic behind the experience at Yasuda is as follows. If you think about it, while expensive, the price point relative to the quality of sushi is actually quite reasonable (especially if you opt for sets like the Matsu where twelve pieces of nigiri plus a half-roll are offered for $36, or Sashimi Take where five varieties can be had for $23.50). In planning his restaurant, Naomichi Yasuda who has since sold his share and returned to Japan, probably had a type of no-frills experience in mind: an ability to offer sushi of paramount quality at an affordable-esque price point by stripping out the fanfare as well as the warm and relaxing service characteristic of the fine dining experience. Logistically, one of the ways that Yasuda can deliver such uncompromising quality similar to Masa but a fraction of its price is by accommodating a few extra seatings, and therefore turning its tables as quickly as possible at the expense of a diner’s comfort. The issue herein is the necessary consideration of absolutes. If you can afford the $100/head to eat at Yasuda then you are also probably accustomed to warm and gracious white-glove service when you’re in the mood for an evening out. And here’s the rump: Milos (to be featured in a future review) in my mind is one of the only restaurants to (rightfully) propose incredibly fresh, yet simple, light and unstuffy foods, devoid of the complex garnishes, stuffy sauces, theatricality and even verticality of ingredients stacked high on plates against their natural will, as is typical at the high-end of dining. Milos has therefore succeeded by virtue of an incredibly loyal following in being stupidly expensive and yet “worthwhile” because there is no compromise on the high standards of service expected at such price points.

I’d be happy to arrange for the owners of Yasuda to meet with Milos’ patriarch, Costas Spiliadis to find out how un-frilly fine foods can be presented in a more sincere and comfortable setting. Selfishly, I’d love to be a regular at Yasuda if the service were only a bit better… But at the end of the day, I bet Costas would say what any restaurateur might who really loves what they do: that it’s all about an innate need to be hospitable; to open one’s home to guests and to be lucky enough to see them smile. So smile back, Yasuda.

Rant over. Are you planning on paying Yasuda a visit? …Have you got any favorite spots where you wish the service were better?

 
WHERE: Sushi Yasuda
Midtown East: 204 East 43rd Street, between 2nd and 3rd
$50-200 per person
Rating: A life-changing sushi experience – you would be there every week if not for the lack of hospitality
 
Other notable examples of where top food is spoiled by terrible service:
 
Yakitori Tori Shin
Upper East Side: 1193 1st Avenue, between 64th and 65th
$40-75 per person
Rating: Easily the best yakitori to be had outside of Japan – and the absolute worst service I’ve experienced in NYC to date
 
Le Bilboquet
Upper East Side: 25 East 63rd Street, between Madison and Park
$35-70 per person
Rating: Serious attitude issues aside, an otherwise pleasant place for very well executed bistro fare and a relaxed weekend lunch near the shops
 
…And not to beat a dead horse but Sam Sifton’s updated review of Masa hits the nail on the head, stripping the most expensive restaurant in New York of its fourth star for its unacceptably cold service and lack of hospitality earlier this year
 

By: Adam Gross

 

6 Comments on “Yasuda: Sushi Supremacy–Service Not Included

  1. Time limit on eating? You must be kidding.

    No matter how good the sushi is, I would absolutely not go back. Service is as much a part of my dining experience as the food, and if the service sucks, it’s just as upsetting as having a plate of 3 day old grocery store grade rolls sitting in front of me. Not okay.

    • Glad you appreciate the art of the “full package”, too, Fellow Foodie!

  2. Adam,
    Great review – having been a couple of times, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’d say that this is THE perfect place for a blind date: there’s a good chance the fish will be better looking than the girl, your awkward conversation will be interrupted every 5 mins., and you don’t need to be the one to awkwardly ask for the check – it will come regardless of whether you are “done”!

    Keep it up!