Hope this exposition is of use; I've spent a few days mulling over this. I have my "critic" cap on, so apologies if any of it sounds harsh; chowhound's mantra is "hate the food" and that's my m.o. today.
Notable foods get 1 or more bullets: • = very good, •• = extremely good, ••• = outstanding
i) "Ohitashi" of shungiku and arugula; bonito flake
- An amuse.
- Can appreciate the reference to using local ingredients i.e. the adjacent Union Square Greenmarket.
- Perfectly decent, but definitely better are: a similar cold green vegetable amuse at Sushi Yasuda, and the mustard eggplant amuse by 15 East back in July.
a) •• Tako - with sea salt to taste | Monkfish liver | • Maine Uni
- Three appetizer tastings on a plate.
1. Octopus is a signature of the restaurant. It is wonderful, and I'm glad it suprised my dad so much. But the tasting portion is small, so I recommend ordering either the full appetizer or as sushi, which would better display the texture of the tako.
2. Monkfish liver's only failing was that it looked better than it tasted, i.e., bland. By simulating the shape of a miniature foie torchon, that sets up people's expectations. It's a hard balance for any kitchen. As for preparation, it was seasoned (maybe poached) Japanese style, maybe ponzu and/or dashi.
3. Maine uni • Compared to other unis, flavor has a natural, pleasant sweetness and texture is especially uniform and has a way of smoothly breaking apart and liquefying on the tongue.
b) Sashimi tasting:
0. Mom points out the soy sauce is of very good quality and flavorful compared to typical soy sauce in restaurants or at home.
1. "Fatty" yellowtail • Interesting cut, slightly soft and grainy. It's different. Kyo-Ya's version was much more impressive and tasty, but based on a more conventional texture/cut.
2. King salmon (maybe not King) Good, in the "solid"/"above average" sense. In comparison, we were at Jean-Georges for lunch, and their signature trout elicited raves from Dad.
3. Charred mackerel (maybe not mackerel) •• Slightly firm flesh with lovely, thin charred layer on one side. Beautiful contrast of black with pink. Mom emphatically likes this one, and she typically dislikes charring in foods.
4. Amaebi tail • Good, but as with the tako, I recommend the sushi version for maximum effect. Dad likes it; I think its rawness is always pleasant and surprising for first timers.
5. Fatty tuna tail, deveined • Beautiful spiral appearance, and I love the idea of using the whole fish.
6. Abalone, mystery part. • Very good. It is crunchy and actually looks like a miniaturized bamboo shoot, with ridges. Dad dislikes, suggests that it is inferior to the abalone used in Chinese cuisine.
7. Clam, mystery part. Nice companion to the abalone, that's about it.
8. Prawn head tempura. Crunchy with a soft, umami center, basically an animal turned into a croquette. It was quite good in and of itself, but I was nonplussed for two reasons. First, it was dropped in front of us without any description or explanation. Second, the sashimi course was already decorated with a shrimp head. Showing 2 heads and 1 tail does not make a convincing narrative. Mom also notices this problem. Though frying and serving the shrimp head does not sound unusual to me, Dad has not seen this before. He likes it and says he would like to try his hand at it sometime. N.b.: Jean-Georges now does a tempura amuse and that one is really very good. Finally, in contrast, Kyo-Ya serves a lone Peace Passage Oyster (I would say slightly oversauced, but definitely more dramatic).
The majority of the above are unusual cuts of seafood, and that can be appreciated. If you are looking for impressive quality but more conventional types, I really like Kyo-Ya (plus, they do a beautiful plating).
c) Clear broth, matsutake slices, simmered pike, fish paste in the shape of a maple leaf, ginko, microgreens… with wedge of yuzu.
A soup course. Cute; it is served in a teapot. The broth is quite harsh and bland, and when it has cooled the yuzu takes on a sour accent. Kyo-Ya has much, much better quality matsutake mushrooms (Kyo-Ya's soup/broth dishes are generally very high quality). Sushi Yasuda has green gingko, which is fantastic if you haven't had that. Basically, thinking back, I feel the presentation was overwrought given the actual taste; the pot should never be more impressive than its contents. I think my parents felt the same way at that time. The maple leaf pasta is very good though (there's a Japanese word for this pasta-like food).
d) Sushi omakase:
0. The rice was… invisible. A little too soft and starchy for my preference. To compare, I think Sushi Yasuda's rice has a lovely texture, yet theirs can veer a little vinegary.
1. Striped jack. Looks beautiful: translucent pink, soy sauce in the gashes. I found the taste nondescript and maybe even a bit too salty.
2. Japanese red snapper, shiso & other seasoning. • Beautiful white sheet. Has a lively texture. Slightly marred by overpowering shiso, but the fish is so good.
3. Kinmedai with skin, torched. I found it soggy and mushy, which for kinmedai I am not accustomed to. But Mom likes this one the best so far.
4. Chopped aji with four seasonings: ginger, miso?, scallion, shiso. A signature preparation and lovely idea. But I would have prefered this at the end; as #4 it is kind of unexpected.
5. Sanma. Big piece, mushy texture. Have had sanma once before, and that was completely forgettable too.
6. Akame. Again looks beautiful, but I wasn't feeling it.
7. Chuutoro. Ditto.
8. Tiny white shrimps. Mostly interesting for its bitter undertones.
9. "California" Uni. Just fine: more flavor than the Maine Uni, but less refined in texture. This was a nice contrast.
10. Anago • Visually it is luxurious, a steaming slab wrapped onto rice. Functionally I think it was too big; at Sushi Yasuda they would have easily made 3 pieces out of it. Taste-wise, it was like eating a big blob of slightly fishy mashed potato. It's an acquired taste. Dad claims there's a restaurant (in Asia) that does eel way better than this, but I think he's referring to unagi…
These were solid, or likeable, or interesting. Emphatically, none were bad, but this time around, I wasn't feeling the magic. The major problem I was trying to deal with was having trouble distinguishing the flavors between the different fishes. By this time, I was too full to be interested in asking for more sushi to try; I would have asked for more shellfish, at the very least.
Throughout most of this course, Dad is unimpressed, which is weird, because he adores sushi and seafood. Once, he comments that the rice is falling apart. Not sure what's going on. It occurs to me that perhaps there is some catering to American palates/sensibilities, because Dad is Asian—and that is one out of many conceivable reasons.
It was pointed out earlier that the ginger is homemade. Frankly, is there a sushi restaurant of this caliber where their gari/tsukemono are not made in-house?
e) Ice cream, Panna cotta, Tofu
- Dessert tasting of unknown types.
I was given the Ice Cream, and it was sorely in need of defrosting. Meanwhile, no positive comments from parents. This was a weak course. I've previously tried the Rice Pudding Tempura and that was similarly unspectacular, albeit cute/clever in concept. The only remaining item that might be really good is the Watermelon Parfait. Overall, the desserts generally don't seem the expense, and so I recommend going to Tocqueville next door if you want Westernized desserts: they can make a killer chocolate souffle.
If a tasting menu is intended to showcase a restaurant's abilities, I would conclude that 15 East's strengths lie in its tako and sashimi. Certain hot dishes and most desserts are just decent, not "destination" type. I had high expecations out of the nigiri course, but perhaps that was more primed by having been under a spell while eating at a table as a first-timer a few months earlier. I am sure the Tasting Menu is an excellent meal for certain types of diners. I would also highlight that, looking at the cost breakdown, what you are getting is an acceptable NYC pricepoint for the quantity and ambition of courses you are getting. But for me, it wasn't quite what I was looking to purchase: I've tasted better, for less cost, both there, and elsewhere.