At his 10-seat counter, Tadashi Yoshida renders sushi meals costing more than $600 with artistry and precision.
Tadashi Yoshida sears mackerel sushi with live charcoal at Yoshino, his restaurant in the Bowery.Credit…Video by Evan Sung For The New York Times
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If you show up a few minutes early for your 5:30 p.m. reservation, Tadashi Yoshida’s door on the Bowery will be locked. It is also unmarked. To the right of the entrance is a discreet panel with a buzzer just below the name, Yoshino; after you press the button, someone will appear in the door to undo the bolt and let you in.
The procedure will be the same for the other nine people who have booked online for the early seating. Then, shortly before 8:30, another 10 customers will be admitted, and that will be it for the night.
Each week, barring no-shows, 120 people will sit at Mr. Yoshida’s counter for an eye-opening procession of two- or three-bite appetizers followed by traditional nigiri sushi. Repeat customers are common. I have met diners who have eaten at Yoshino’s hinoki-wood counter half a dozen times or more since it opened in 2021. One was celebrating her 16th birthday.
In his first year, Mr. Yoshida charged $515 for a meal, which included service and tax but not drinks. A few weeks ago, the price went up to $646. This is obviously not within the means of very many 16-year-olds, or 60-year-olds, for that matter. If you have that kind of money, I can’t tell you whether you, personally, should spend it on a single dinner at Yoshino. But I have some idea why people who have eaten there keep coming back.
Some sushi restaurants are at their best early in the meal, others at the end. Their omakase sets are like plane flights — some ascend slowly and don’t hit cruising altitude until the appetizers are over; with others, the first piece of nigiri means your descent has already begun. (Masa is like that.)
A meal at Mr. Yoshida’s counter is more like a helicopter: it goes straight up.
Your meal might begin with a cool, silky potato soup. How many other chefs in New York can get your attention by serving vichysoisse as a first course? Surely there’s nobody else garnishing it with lumps of kegani, the Hokkaido hairy crab, under a spoonful of jellied tosazu sauce and a big, dark cluster of osetra caviar.
After this might come two mini-slabs of monkfish-liver terrine. They are impossibly soft for something that has edges and corners. If the city’s foie gras ban ever takes effect, you’ll be able to get the same high, or something close to it, from this liver, one slice served with a dot of grated wasabi and the other with translucent sweet pickles.
Mr. Yoshida will tell you how to eat it, as he tells everyone who comes to his restaurant: “Take a little bite, then sake. Little bite, sake. Then sake, sake, sake…” His repertoire of jokes in English is limited, but he makes the most of it. Within minutes he seems to establish an easy rapport with diners, letting them know that there’s no need to take it all so seriously.
To open his restaurant on the Bowery, Mr. Yoshida closed Sushi no Yoshino, the restaurant in Nagoya, Japan, that he had brought to national and then worldwide acclaim. He is probably the first sushi chef of his stature to leave Japan in order to start fresh in New York. In a little more than a year, he has established Yoshino in the city’s highest tier of omakase restaurants. Its nearest peer is Shion 69 Leonard Street, where the chef is Shion Uino, and I think Mr. Yoshida’s range is greater and his style more expressive.
Also at the tip of the sushi pyramid, but below Yoshino and 69 Leonard Street, is Nakaji. After that comes everybody else.
Yoshino is a showpiece of meticulous carpentry, from the spindle-backed chairs in which two hours feel like no time at all to the sliding doors made of interlocking pieces of hinoki joined without nails or screws. Pay special attention to the space where Mr. Yoshida stands, and how skillfully it has been outfitted with grooves and hollows to hold his knives, rice steamers and other tools. It is the work station of a chef who knows exactly what he needs and what he doesn’t.
For all the skill his cooked appetizers display, Mr. Yoshida can get startling effects from ingredients that he barely touches. Rosy folds of raw sea bream rest under a mango-colored piece of karasumi, mullet roe that is salted, pressed and aged into something that tastes like fish-egg ham.
In late fall and into the winter, there may be shirako, sacs of cod milt in loose white coils over ponzu sauce. I am not sure how many of Yoshida’s repeat customers return for the shirako itself, but I am certain a good number return because Yoshino is the kind of place where a no-choices tasting menu may well include a bowlful of fish semen.
Maybe it’s not quite your cup of tea. Almost everybody, though, loves the yaki saba sushi that forms the bridge from the appetizers to the nigiri portion of dinner. The dish begins as a strip of shiny, oily, cured mackerel over a log of rice on a plate. With that in one hand, Mr. Yoshida grips a brazier of binchotan charcoal in the other and holds it just above the mackerel’s skin, warming it slowly.
Then, like mission control, he counts down from 10. By this time, phones up and down the counter have been lifted from their phone-size tatami mats. At the moment of liftoff, he touches the mackerel with the glowing coals. The skin hisses. Steam shoots out. Shutters click.
The payoff for you is a piece of sushi pinched inside a papery square of nori. The heat has driven fat out of the mackerel and into the rice, which is now bound together by rich fish oils.
None of the pieces of nigiri that follow will be photographed from quite as many angles, but their pleasures will be just as real. The rice will be just sticky enough to hold together for a few seconds on its way to your mouth. It will be just tart enough that you can sense the presence of vinegar without quite tasting it.
Almost all the fish have been pickled or salted or aged in some other way before they end up on your plate. This is something to keep in mind when you start to wonder, as you probably will, why the kohada tastes so lemony and bright; why the Spanish mackerel seems as if it were smoked even though it isn’t; and where the tuna, three pieces of increasing richness served one after another, gets its wiry minerality.
And then the fish are finished. Mr. Yoshida hands you a yellow square of tamago that is doing a deadpan impersonation of crème brûlée, down to the glassy lid of burned sugar on top. This is almost a dessert and the next course is totally a dessert. A sliver of Basque cheesecake, it is, in texture at least, less cake than cheese, with the creamy, runny softness of a triple crème.
Of course, other sushi chefs have mixed outside ideas into this essentially Japanese idiom. But Mr. Yoshida does it in a natural, unforced way that is very rare. A meal in his restaurant glides like a sliding door in its groove.
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