Note: As of July 2015, Shimizu-san has left NY permanently to open a sushiya in Bangokok. This write-up largely represents 15 East under his leadership, though a very capable head chef has been tapped as his replacement.
- Cost: USD $100-$150, before drinks, tax and tip
- Size: 10 seats at counter, plus dining room
- Style: kaiseki-sushi omakase; otsumami + nigiri sushi
- Reserved: 1-3 weeks in advance
There are probably two facts that are most useful to get an initial impression of 15 East. One, of the high-end sushiya in New York, it has the most loyal and consistent following of regular customers. Two, these regulars include a higher proportion of world-renowned chefs (I'm talking Michelin stars here, not "Top Chef" contestants) than any other sushiya in New York.
The reason for this is actually pretty straightforward: Masato Shimizu is incredibly friendly and engaging, and his passion for making top-quality of sushi shows through not only his product and consistency but in his general attitude. In an industry where most masters exhibit the stoic, serious stereotype of the shokunin, Shimizu-san's approach to omakase is a breath of fresh air. It's not a coincidence that many of the regulars at 15 East were former customers of Shimizu-san at Jewel Bako more than ten years ago.
There are a small handful of restaurants in New York serving sushi on the level of 15 East, but one aspect that sets this sushiya apart is the fact that a consistent stream of customers means a staggering variety of fish and otsumami is available on any given night. In certain seasons, this could mean as many 40 different items, including 2-4 types of uni, 3-5 hikari mono, and 4-7 cuts of tuna. If you are looking for rare items seldom found outside of Japan (shirako? akagai? shin-ika? nore sore?) 15 East is probably your best bet in New York. The fact that the restaurant has an established track record and network of distributors also means that a significant portion of its seafood (sometimes as much as 50%) is sourced directly, without having to be flown through Japan first.
15 East does serve a menu of cooked items and a kaiseki-esque omakase. Some of these items (particularly the housemade tofu and soba) are excellent, but the best experience in the restaurant is a traditional omakase served at the counter. Otsumami often include a few signature items, such as incredibly tender poached octopus, and other selections that do not shy away from traditional Japanese tastes (such as sake-steamed bai gai, a type of whelk).
The nigiri are near-perfect most of the time, with the only inconsistency being the fact that sometimes the shari does not have quite as much firmness as I'd like and sometimes the neta is a bit too cold - but these are pretty minor critcisms. In general, the shari is lightly-seasoned and served at body temperature, in contrast to certain sushiya that focus on warm and heavily-vinegared rice. Seasoning on the neta tends toward the traditional, but includes a few small flourishes (such as ume paste with tai, or yuzu kosho with hikari mono).
Of course, the wide variety of items available sometimes means there are fewer standouts when compared to an omakase that, say, focuses on 15 or so bites with laser precision. But the procession of tastes and the overall experience certainly makes 15 East one of the best sushiya in America.
15 E. 15th St., near Union Square, New York