I've always a bit of an old school purist when it comes to sashimi. I like it in good ol' fashioned Edo style with no fancy sauces, emulsions or flavored oils obscuring the clean taste of good fish. I think "inventive" rolls filled with jerk chicken, mango, cream cheese, mayonnaise, or sriracha are a bastardization of maki. And I've long thought that add-ins hide rather than highlight. My dinner at Soto last Friday made me rethink each one of these beliefs. Sotohiro Kosugi's inventions are bold and delicate all at once, perfectly balanced creations that treat good fish with the respect it is due.
We started with Live Fluke Usuzukuri, described as thinly sliced Long Island live fluke with lime and sea salt, and a touch of yuzu zest. In less restrained hands, this dish would have been just another tired faux ceviche, as similar dishes all over Manhattan are. But here, the preparation was not only aesthetically stunning, plated like a lovely flower with pink and white petals of fish so thinly sliced as to be translucent, but also an absolute delight of subtlety. Ordinarily, fluke is not strong-tasting and lime and yuzu are. Here, however, the lime and yuzu zest were so understated that they somehow managed to bring the taste of fluke to the fore. The light sprinkling of sea salt added a satisfying textural contrast.
For the second and third courses, we had Chyutoro Tar Tare (chopped fatty tuna with avocado coulis, garnished with caviar and chive, served in sesame ponzu sauce) and Aji Tataki (chopped horse mackerel with myoga ginger shoots, shiso, and chives), brought out in close succession. The chyutoro tar tare was as decadently creamy as pudding and the fish was still, to my surprise, pretty good despite all the potential masking flavors. The caviar served in the dish (and in many other dishes on the menu: caviar is, like uni, a bit of a leitmotif of the restaurant) was a really mild, deep charcoal gray variety from, I think Kosugi-san said, domestically produced osetra, not too salty and not too fishy. The highlight of the aji tataki for me was not the fish -- though it was good -- but the discreetly gingery flavor of the myoga. I do not think I have had it at any other NYC restaurant, though aji nigiri served with a bit of finely grated ginger for garnish is common at many restaurants.
The next course was the Geoduck Clam Salad (ginger marinated tender part of giant clam, japanese, cucumber, spicy radish sprouts, mizuna). This was a very nice refresher course, with the crispy textures and spicy, green flavors calling our taste buds back to work from the happy somnolence they could have slipped into after the intense workout from prior courses. I didn’t get a good enough taste of the dark gray geoduck (I think this is the part in the shell, not the long, phallic thing that extends from the shell) to report on it, unfortunately. It was chewy—and then it was gone down the Gulliver. I only came out with one piece of it in the mad scramble. :)
I should note, by the way, that though we ordered a mish mash of different items, the restaurant decided when to bring out each dish. Clearly, some intelligent thought (not at all associated with my dining companions or me) went into serving the mild fluke, first, and then the profoundly rich tar tare and slightly stronger flavored aji, followed by the palate cleansing greens. The order and timing were well thought out.
We had a moment to rest and enjoy our libations before the wait staff brought out our Live Lobster Sashimi (live Maine lobster marinated with truffle soy sauce, served under yuzu kimizu and osetra). The texture of the lobster was quite unharmed from marination and the kimizu was lightly flavored enough that one could actually taste the subtle sweetness of lobster, underneath.
I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel at this point, but the dining companion who took charge of the ordering had called for two “omakase” courses, as well, for the four of us to share. This was not a true omakase, but rather a set of eight pieces of nigiri that were brought, all at once to our table.
As an aside, our table was interestingly placed to the right of the chef – both part of the sushi bar, and separate from it. This is a good set up for shy / uncivilized Americans (like me) who don’t always entirely feel comfortable chatting it up with the chef and yet want to bask in his glow a bit. :) You have the benefit of your table companions’ company and are able to speak with the chef, as much or as little as you feel comfortable with. In this case, I really do wish I’d been able to speak with Kosugi san a little bit more, since he seemed like a very nice human being and very knowledgeable (not at all like the dour, severe persona that Bruni typecast him to be).
But back to the food: Given previous reviews of the sushi and sashimi on this board, I was prepared to be unimpressed. Perhaps in part because I went in with low expectations, I came out quite happy. The rice is not as good as it is at Yasuda, but overall, the fish was about on par with what I have had at Ushi Wakamaru. (One night, I will have to do a side by side comparison.) Some items were much, much better than I’ve had anywhere in the city. We had traditional-styled nigiri of Columbian toro, Spanish toro, aji, fluke, hamachi, uni, and I think striped jack and scallop. The Columbian toro was tough and stringy in comparison to the Spanish toro (as rich and buttery as they get, as good as Yasuda’s), but I think it was in part there for contrast. The other real standouts were the scallop (also wonderful and sweet) and the uni. I really have not had uni like this, before. Perhaps in part because it is still in season, now, and because it is a Soto specialty, the uni was undeniably astonishing – almost desserty for its richness and sweetness, with not a hint of the off flavor that turned me off to it at even very good sushi restaurants in the past. Eating this uni was almost a transformative experience: I understood for the first time in my life exactly why uni fiends rave about the stuff. It also made me wish I’d done what Kobetobiko did: circled the uni items on the menu and ordered them all.
Along with the nigiri, we also had a tar tare tuna roll (spicy tuna tar tare with asian pear, cucumber, avocado, sesame, pine nuts, scallion wrapped in white kelp). I was stuffed by this point, and the fact that the roll still managed to taste delicious (despite my aversion to spicy fusion rolls and all those adulterating ingredients) is a testament to the thought that went into combining the flavors in this way. The pine nuts were a clever touch, no flavor was too dominant, and the variegated white and green of the kelp was almost too beautiful to eat. I didn’t detect anything off in the fish that would mark it as having been made out of grade B leftovers.
After some time – more than three hours after the start of our meal – we somehow managed to work down strawberry, green tea, red bean and mango mochi ice creams (1/4 of a piece for each person, each piece thoughtfully halved for each couple) before waddling out the door. The mochi was beautiful: soft, tender, and obviously freshly made, unlike the tough, long-frozen shells slapped onto ice cream you find almost everywhere else.
I wanted to wait a bit after my meal before writing a review because I was afraid I’d be intemperate in my praise or addled by the copious amounts of sake we put down that night. But after some sober thought I really think I can say that based on this first experience, Soto is now on the list of my favorite restaurants in NYC. I don’t know if anyone else will see the parallels, but it really does remind me in a strange way of WD 50, another favorite restaurant of mine, though the cuisines are obviously quite different. There is the same attention to detail, to textural combinations, and to interesting flavor combinations. There is the same attention to presentation, the same sense of adventure in approach. A few paychecks from now, I will certainly have to come back and check out the 1/4 of the menu I didn't get to this time around.