Sushi Yasuda, Hold the Yasuda

I listed Sushi Yasuda as number ten on my 2010 bottom ten list. Why? In January 2011, the restaurant’s namesake chef, Naomichi Yasuda, is leaving to open a small sushi bar in Japan.  Just a few weeks after I arrived at Columbia as a freshman, I turned 19. Without my family and closest friends, I felt alone on my birthday. In order to celebrate, I went to Sushi Yasuda, seeking an education in nigiri from one of New York’s most acclaimed practitioners. Notorious for enforcing a set of sushi-eating rules and his uncompromising fish, Yasuda ruled the sushi bar with authoritarian precision. With his smiling eyes and deft hands, however, he made even the most inexperienced diners feel welcome. I wrote about my dinner for the Columbia Daily Spectator’s now defunct blog, Spectacle. My birthday blues obliterated, I left Sushi Yasuda confident that I could return in the future after visiting New York’s other noteworthy sushi spots

So, when I read that Yasuda planned to leave his dimunitive kingdom for different waters, I felt the time had finally arrived for a “re-review.” Another sushihead, Andrew, expressed interest in returning as well. Along with Andrew’s roommate Tom and Michael’s Genuine vet Harry, we headed East on a frigid December evening. Unfortunately, Yasuda was gone, and I felt regret for time wasted, the terrible meals I ate, the sacrifices I never made to earn another chance at Yasuda’s bar. Although my aching laments sound hyperbolic, they stem from a longing Sushi Yasuda inspires in once-patrons. The New York Times quoted chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson’s similar expression of loss. “I feel so very sad,” Samuelsson told the Times. “When I sat at the bar, it was the way I had sushi in Japan starting when I was 19.”

After eating at Sushi Yasuda sans Yasuda, however, I feel confident that quality will remain constant. In Yasuda’s absence, Mitsuru Tamura will take control. Yasuda leaves his restaurant in capable hands.

Settling in front of Sushi Yasuda’s soft, blonde bar, I felt apprehensive. With a cup of hojicha, roasted green tea, in hand, I watched the chefs work effortlessly. There is a pervasive calm inside Sushi Yasuda, like resting at the bottom of a swimming pool. The city recedes. And for a moment, life reduces to the movements of hand and knife, fluid strokes whittling flesh into food.

First, a piece of medium fatty blue fin tuna from Spain. The chu-toro luminesces, a liquid piece of pure red draped over rice, more opulent than toro at more expensive restaurants. Then, white king salmon, pearlescent and nearly as fatty. Shima aji (striped jack) and branzino follow in quick succession, both firm and mild. Next, sea scallop, sliced barely thicker than a millimeter. “This is the best scallop I’ve ever had,” Andrew murmurs. He will order more before the dinner ends.

A sparkling orange slice of Tazmanian trout expresses the telos of lox: dense with fat, an Upper West Sider’s dream. And ama ebi, a cluster of shrimp comfortably curled atop rice, crackle with freshness.

“Geoduck?” I ask, pointing at the neatly scored giant clam. The chef nods and smiles. Crunchy but not chewy, the clam tastes musky, like tide. “You like fluke?” he inquires, and we assent, signaling him to pull out fluke fin (engawa). Here, chewiness does reign supreme, a delicate resistance that begs quiet mastication and contemplation.

“Do you like sea urchin?” I learned to love sea urchin at Sushi Yasuda. In this temple, I was indoctrinated into the cult of uni. A single tongue of umber urchin roe arrives. “I don’t even know how to describe what this tastes like,” my friends say. “It tastes of the sea,” I answer, and our chef nods. He knows that uni denies metaphorization, eludes language and even the most poetic expression. Like Clarissa Dalloway, sea urchin dwells outside an expressible realm. “For there she was.”

Remembering a Peace Passage oyster I tried here a year ago, I enter a special request. “No Peace Passage oyster anymore,” our chef informs us. “Medium oyster.” He pulls out the largest oyster I’ve ever seen, bigger than a hockey puck. Slick with its own juices, the oyster provokes wistful stares and eyes-closed-exploration. When I was 16, I visited Point Reyes and ate oysters. We drove to the beach and climbed down to the rocky shore, where the sun set purple over tide pools. Anthony Bourdain speaks of his first oyster in France; I speak of my journey West, California and the Pacific. This oyster feels like a remnant of something pure, barely shaped by human hands.

Iwashi, sardine, rolls off the tongue with a metallic, meaty clang. Custardy unagi kuro, fresh dark freshwater eel, blossoms into briny fat. And mounds of toro squeezed into a roll with scallion stand in for dessert, cold and sweet.

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

In his early work “Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout,” Gary Snyder moves closer to “No Nature,” the elimination of separation between man and the world. Sushi Yasuda not only provides a refuge from the crushing force of the metropolis, but also an opportunity to understand the relationship of man to the sea. I leave with a smile cascading off my face, serene and content. On 3rd Avenue, I am looking through high, still air. And it is beautiful.

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