Roughly a decade after it began, the era of the Godzilla-size, Japan-themed dining palaces seems mercifully to have ceased. Whenever I want to reminisce about that grandiose, bygone era, I drop in to Matsuri, in the basement of the Maritime Hotel, to gape at the Viking-size dining hall, before slipping into a seat at the always colorful, always frenetic sushi bar at Morimoto for a taste of Masaharu Morimoto’s intricate omakase creations. But in au courant Japanese-dining circles, the real action is at smaller, more nimble establishments like 15 East, off Union Square, where Masato Shimizu produces classic high-end sushi done in a minimalist, no-frills style. The talented young chef is a purist of the old school, curing his own ginger and marinating his sea eel in vats of sake. If you’re feeling flush, order the $75 tuna flight, which consists of five different cuts and grades of fatty albacore tuna, which the gregarious Shimizu likes to explain, for the young hedge-fund clientele who roost along the bar, with the help of a special laminated tuna chart.
Similar unexpected pleasures are available at Soto, which opened this spring among the smoke shops and tattoo parlors on lower Sixth Avenue. The polished little restaurant has no sign on the door, and night after night you will find its proprietor, Sotohiro Kosugi, in his spectacles and white sushi cap, bent behind the bar with his two loyal assistants, crafting a whole range of inventive small-plate delicacies. But among the city’s community of sushi snobs, this third-generation sushi chef is best known for his almost unnerving fondness for sea urchin, which he balances on little spools of yuba tofu, tosses with raw quail eggs and shreds of squid (“uni ika sugomori zukuri”), or whips into mousse form and shapes, with fresh lobster and a sprinkling of caviar, into an exotic savory layer cake.
The original Sushi of Gari, on 78th Street, is still the place I like to take my sushi-starved friends on the Upper East Side for a first-class fish feast. But when that poky space is filled up, we head to the new Manhattan outlet of the famous L.A. sushi temple Sasabune, on East 73rd Street, where everyone receives the same purist omakase dinner of hot butterfish dabbed with soy, say, or orange snapper dusted with yuzu and served, according to the specifications established at the West Coast original, on chaste white tea plates. For a more august Japanese meal, the place is Rosanjin, in Tribeca, where the gregarious proprietor, Jungjin Park, has made it his mission to educate the local big-money hipsters in kaiseki, the rarefied cuisine of the Kyoto emperors. At his discreet, nine-table establishment, $150 buys a nine-course banquet, including soft pieces of scallop flecked with gold leaf, little twigs of uni delicately sizzled in tempura batter, and wafer-size segments of rich, fatty tuna belly served in bowls of handmade porcelain, with chopsticks carved from cedarwood, as Park will tell you, by the finest chopstick-makers in Kyoto.