A few weeks ago, I had planned on having a fabulous omakase with Hideo-san at Ushiwakamaru in New York. Two days before my reservation, the restaurant called to inform me that the Department of Health had closed it down and would not plan on re-opening for the foreseeable future. (Click here for the Ushiwaka maru thread on eGullet to read more).
Craving sushi, I considered the following options: Karumazushi, Sushi Seki, and Jewel Bako, all places I had wanted (and do intend) to visit. I have been to Sushi Yasuda twice before and have had such stellar experiences there that it was hard for me to resist another visit. However, I had promised myself to try a new sushi place this time.
Two days advanced notice is not a lot of time to secure a spot at a sought after sushi bar. Jewel Bako had an opening, and I took it. I actually wanted to visit this restaurant, despite the negative reviews posted here and elsewhere. I had heard good things about chef Yoshi-san from others and decided to give it a shot.
You can see all the pictures from my dinner and read the commentary, on my flickr account (click here).
Here’s a high-level summary:
Atmosphere: The space is incredibly claustrophobic. We sat at the bar in front of Yoshi-san. I have NO CLUE how the people in the two matchbox-sized dining rooms could stand it in there. It’s dark, extremely tight (“packed liked sardines” personified) – when the dining room was full, it seemed impossible to thread through the middle aisle.
At the bar, there was so little space behind the diners (between the diner’s back and the wall) that I felt shoved up against the bar for fear of pinning one of the many servers who shuttled back and forth constantly to the wall. There was a lot of commotion and it felt frenetic the entire evening. While I’d like to say that I block out all of this during my meal, neither the food nor other factors were able to captivate me more. I was constantly aware of, and a little edgy in, my surroundings.
Also, I don’t exactly get how the name might remotely be appropriate. “Box,” sure, but “Jewel?” It’s unique, but not particularly a “gem.”
Food: The sashimi platter (first “course”) was strong. The fish selection was interesting and well assembled. There are two reasons why I particularly liked the sashimi: (1) the fish had been allowed to “age” for a proper amount of time – allowing the proteins to break down and the natural flavors to develop and intensify, and (2) for the most part, the sashimi pieces were served unadorned and simply on their own.
The nigiri (we had a progression of about 16 after the sashimi plate), overall, was disappointing.
(1) I’m a sushi purist, and Yoshi-san is one of what I call a “modernista sushi chef.” Almost everything came with some kind of garnish or extraneous embellishment – be it yuzu paste, lime foam, or some butane torch treatment. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, per se, if it works (there was one in particular – giant clam with a lime and salt garnish – that was actually better, I think with the garnish than without). But for the most part, the additions tended to mask/distract from the natural flavors/textures, etc. of the fish. The hotate (scallop) had citrus on it… which changed the surface texture and disarmed the one thing I love most about scallops – the natural briny sweetness.
(2) The rice here, in my opinion, is really substandard. I noticed that the rice crock was not covered, which probably explains why it was cold and dry. In fact on one of my early nigiri pieces (I think it was the second one), the rice stuck to the inside of my cheek in a wad if dry clay – I had use my tongue to get it loose. I don’t make this statement to be sensationalist – but it truly was a disappointing moment in the meal, one that set the tone for the rest of the pieces I tried that night. We never noticed him change the rice (or replenish from the back) through the night, and indeed, the rice got drier and drier throughout the meal. I will say, however, that one of my dining companions did like the rice, making a point of it after I had shared my thoughts.
(3) The fish here is served just below my ideal nigiri temperature level. While the sashimi platter was fine (everything was room temperature – I think this is because they plated a number of sashimi courses at once and so the plates had been sitting out a little longer), most of the nigiri cuts we got were almost straight from the chill cases. Not only did this affect the texture of the fish (making the flesh stiffer), but it also numbed the flavor (or rather, it numbed my mouth to the flavor). The fact that the sushi rice was room temperature (which in my book, is “cold”), didn’t help.
(4) Torching ranks high on showmanship, but, I’m not so sure it added much to my overall experiences. For instance, the butane was used on the uni – which did little except char the top. I had half expected it to intensify the natural sweetness of the roe, which it might have, but Yoshi-san paints a soy sauce-based glaze (I’m guessing there’s mirin in the sauce) over the top and torches it a second time. The soy sauce-based glaze (not being particularly high in sugar) chars, leaving the top with a slightly burnt, bitter taste. Likewise, he torched the eel between two banana leaves. The eel meat had no contact with the flame. While the eel went gelatinously soft (a good thing), it became heavily perfumed with the scent of banana – which I found really distracting. Some may like that banana leaf flavor; I don’t. I prefer my eel simply charred on a robata over bright hot binchotan. The only torch treatment I actually enjoyed was the barracuda nigiri – he scorched the scaled skin on the outside, which gave the skin a nice smoky flavor and interest texture (it wasn’t quite crispy – more rubbery, but in a good way).
Service: Nothing particularly good or bad. We were serviced appropriately and courteously. Sushi-ya aren’t really known for their service, in particularly, and Jewel Bako isn’t really different in this regard. I will say that liquids were refilled to a touch and all other aspects of the staff, other than their frenetic shuttling about, was seamless. I really wasn’t in want of anything.
One thing that I will note about courtesy: When my guests and I sat down at the bar, there was a high-roller and his family seated next to us (think: self sushi ego masseuse) who hogged a good deal of Yoshi-san’s time. We probably didn’t get any nigiri until at least an hour after we’d been seated. At the close of service, Yoshi-san apologized to my guests and me profusely for the delay and thanked us for our patience, which was nice to hear.
One star Michelin? I don’t get that. But, then again, I don’t agree with Michelin NYC a the 1 star level.
A decent sushi-ya for the “nouveau”-minded, trend-set Nipponophile – sure – but of little interest to me.
239 East 5th Street
New York, New York 10003