401 East 73rd St., nr. 1st Ave.
At the risk of waging a culinary cook-off between Los Angeles & New York, I contend that LA’s only got one thing on NYC as far as food goes – sushi. But that’s all changed now that Sasabune has graced Manhattan with its sacred, signature omakase. After spending years as the protégé to Nobi, the sushi master behind Sushi
Sasabune, a top-rated LA sushi spot, Kenji has made good on his
promise, quietly opening a sushi sanctuary of his own on the Upper East Side. While Sushi of Gari paved the way for destination dining in the name of avant-garde sushi, Sasabune will undoubtedly prove fierce competition for Gari, who’s busy opening up spinoffs around the city. While both chefs seem equally as vigilant about perfectly-cooked sushi rice as they are about their “top-secret” homemade sauces, Sasabune goes to greater and perhaps, more traditional measures, to top off warm nibbles of rice with extraordinarily fresh fish. A one-man show, sushi chef Kenji starts his day at 4:30 AM, scouring the fish market for the highest grade fish money can buy.
Tucked into a non-descript storefront on 73rd Street, it’s clear from the moment you walk in the door that Sasabune isn’t about the atmosphere or the social scene. The modest, minimally accented space – white-washed walls, a wood sushi bar, and a few orchids – has seating for 12 in the front room, 6 seats at the sushi bar, and 15 more in an adjoining back room. The only notable furbishings are two signs that read: “Today’s Special – Trust Me” and “No Spicy Tuna & No California Roll”. Trust me refers to Sasabune’s omakase, which translates to chef’s choice. Thus, as far as special requests or non-sushi offerings, don’t bother to request any; miso soup, salad, edamame, or any Americanized fusion roll of sorts isn’t available on the menu. I still remember the first time I reluctantly ate “Trust Me” style in LA as
my friend urgently whispered, ”Just eat what they put in front of you and don’t
say anything.” Sure, you’ll feel like Elaine in the infamous Soup Nazi
episode, but just keep your head down and you’ll quickly get the hang
After you take your first glorious bite of albacore sashimi, divinely washed in a sweet puddle of homemade sauce – a secret concoction of ponzu, soy, wasabi and sake – you’ll never see sushi the same again. A heavenly procession of well-choreographed plates, Sasabune’s omakase, is diligantly repeated every evening in LA, Honololu and happily now, on NYC’s UES. Settle in for the next plate, a piece of supremely fresh piece of naked tuna sushi, toro when it’s up to Kenji’s standards, and another dressed in the same ponzu sauce that blessed the albacore sashimi. The rest of the meal becomes a blur of exquisitely prepared pieces of kampachi, snapper, butterfish, and fluke, all served atop warm sushi rice. Your server will indicate which pieces are meant to dunked in soy sauce and slathered with wasabi, and which ones aren’t – these serve more as gentle rules than suggestions. But truth be told, this delicate sushi needs no soy sauce at all, seeing as the fish itself, and even the rice itself are so bright and flavorful, they need no help at all.
Then there are those that come dressed already: a buttery salmon with pickled kelp and toasted sesame seeds; a snapper brightened up with a touch of lemon, lime pepper and salt; a silky amberjack with ponzu sauce and scallions.
There’s no dessert, but the baked crab hand roll gives new meaning to a happy ending. Besides, you’ll probably be too full to even consider sweets, that is, if you’re lucky enough to make it to the end of this symphony. Put yourself in Kenji’s hands for sushi so fantastical, words can’t possibly do it justice. Just trust me.
Until we eat again,
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