For the time being, the invasion of the Godzilla-size dining palaces appears to have ceased. This parade of grandiose Asian-themed establishments began several years ago with restaurants like Megu and Matsuri and culminated last year with the arrival of Stephen Starr’s downtown monolith, Buddakan. But the dining world has since gone into a period of retrenchment, and now, like mammals after dinosaurs, smaller and nimbler establishments are popping up. One such restaurant is 15 East, which opened several months ago just off Union Square. It’s a sliver of a place, with a well-lit sushi bar up front and a small, thirteen-table dining room. The tables are made of simple wood, not shiny lacquer, and the waiters do not wear ninja costumes. There’s no disco backbeat echoing from the speaker system, and the spare walls are mercifully free of sake barrels, forests of samurai swords, and giant brass gongs.
Indeed, with its modest size and stark décor, 15 East feels like that rare and exotic thing: a traditional Japanese-run restaurant. The proprietor, Marco Moreira, owner of the nearby Tocqueville (15 East occupies Tocqueville’s tiny former space), had the good sense to hire Masato Shimizu, a talented young sushi chef who formerly worked at Jewel Bako. Shimizu is a purist who cures his own gari (ginger) and produces high-class, no-frills sushi in the classic style. There are no tricked-out maki rolls on his menu, and no newfangled sushi items containing seared foie gras or Kobe beef. You can get seven varieties of silver fish on the à la carte menu, however, and an impeccable example of sayori (needlefish) with scallion. The anago (poached sea eel) is another specialty, and if you’re feeling flush, order the $75 “tuna flight,” consisting of five different cuts and grades of fresh bluefin, which the gregarious Shimizu will illustrate for you with a special tuna chart.
The standard menu at 15 East has grown since its opening to include a variety of traditional specialties. There’s edamame scattered with shreds of salty seaweed, and delicious bits of Japanese snapper flavored with lemony ponzu and served on a bamboo leaf. I wasn’t too wild about the esoteric delicacy called tako yawarakani (midget octopi poached in sake), but you can get beads of cool, fresh, popping salmon roe (ikura shoyuzuke) marinated in sake and presented in a Champagne glass. Be sure to try both the kakiage, a lightly crunchy tempura latke made from shredded root vegetables (served here with wedges of Key lime and three varieties of artisanal salt), and yamaimo, a delicate, almost dissolving kind of Japanese potato, which the chefs shred into a little mound of “spaghettini” and set in a pool of cool soy dashi broth.
Last time I checked, there were only five entrées available at 15 East. They included a wet, unsurprising assemblage of salmon served five different ways, tasty (and, at $32, pricey) rounds of consommé-drenched lobster encased in a miso crust, and duck breasts smoked, not unpleasantly, in hojicha tea. If you wish to fork out $45, slices of broiled Kobe beef are available, too, with a little pot of shiitake butter for dipping. But in the end, the dish of choice at this unassuming little restaurant is the first-class sushi. Afterward, you can pick at a selection of almost excessively dainty Japanese desserts, like fruit pudding in a soupy pineapple broth, and soft tofulike blocks infused with almonds. The raciest item is the rice pudding, fried tempura style and plated with sake-flavored ice cream. If like me you’re a veteran of countless raucous megadinners, you’ll find that it’s a pleasure to eat this dish slowly, in the soft, murmuring silence, with a little demitasse spoon.
Rosanjin, in Tribeca, is another diminutive Japanese establishment seeking to find its own highly stylized niche. The specialty here is the esoteric cuisine of the Kyoto emperors called kaiseki. A true kaiseki meal proceeds according to a ritualized formula that even some Japanese gastronomes believe to be excessively mannered and baroque. The owner, Jungjin Park (who is Korean, educated in Japan), attempts to duplicate the experience almost exactly. There are only nine tables at Rosanjin, and each set-course dinner is prepared to order by the Kyoto-trained chef. The room is shielded from the outside by a silk screen, and if you go early like I did, you may find yourself dining in solitary splendor, with Yo-Yo Ma music playing gently in the background and glass after glass of sake being poured from a chilled glass teapot by Park himself.
Dinner at an elite kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto can cost upwards of $500 per person, so the $150 price tag at Rosanjin is a comparative bargain. My dinner began with slivers of scallop flecked with gold leaf, which I devoured in about five seconds flat. The next course, a carefully articulated bowl of eggy fish broth called wangmori, didn’t last much longer, at which point Park appeared to explain how my chopsticks had been hand-carved from red-cedar wood by the finest chopstick masters in Kyoto. I then used the chopsticks to hoover down four reasonably fresh varieties of sashimi and a button of fatty tuna—so fatty it tasted faintly like bacon. The highlight of the meal was the tempura, which featured sea urchin wrapped around a single frizzled shiso leaf. Dessert, a dribble of tofu “blancmange” dripped with mango juice, was disappointing. Park was at pains to point out that dessert has never been a notable part of the kaiseki experience. He’s right. Regardless, it’s unclear whether frenetic New Yorkers will take to this obscure, Kabuki-like form of dining.