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Ushiwakamaru -- re-review (long)/new thread

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Simon May 25, 2012 05:06 AM

On another thread foodwhisperer asked for my thoughts on Ushiwakamaru, and i thought maybe the place deserved a re-review as well as it’s own thread to get other people’s current thoughts.

Personally, i love the place and have been going there on&off for years, but i’ll admit it’s not without its issues and idiosyncracies...i’m a fan and i guess i’d be considered a regular of sorts, but i sometimes have issues there myself, so i’m not surprised that others have occassionally run into things they weren’t thrilled with.

For me, it offers the best fish quality for the money in NYC...a notch below 15 East (my favorite sushi in NY) but still beyond excellent and usually a good bit cheaper (yet not always cheaper! - more on that below)...

Hideo-san, the head chef and owner, is a master...but the style of sushi is different from 15 East or Yasuda: less delicate presentation, slightly larger cuts of fish, rice is that is both warmer and a bit mushier...for me, the rice is a bit too warm, but the wonderful fish makes up for it...and there is usually significant variety, and seasonal, flown-from-Japan options that usually are available at only the top places: hamo, shira ebi, etc...the madai w/ shio has always been especially delicious, as are the “blue” fishes (e.g. iwashi, aji, saba)...

Hideo-san is also, as others have mentioned, a moody guy, and his manner can veer wildly from garrulous and charming, to gruff and rushed...i usually buy him a beer: which is served to him in a giant mug (but which only costs 5 dollars to the customer, at least when i happened to notice on the bill last week)...his English is so-so at best, so he’s comfier if you speak some Japanese...i also have noticed, over the years, that he ups his charm significantly when i’m there w/ a beautiful woman, as opposed to being there solo...

(What might have been my absolute best meal there ever was a few years ago when i went w/ a Belarusan girl, a DJ who for her later-that-night gig was wearing a somewhat retro-1950’s outfit that included a blue pencil skirt/jacket/matching-hat and a wheeled flight bag full of records: Hideo-san however assumed she was an Aeroflot flight attendant and this seemed to make him very happy and giddy and i can’t remember him ever being quite so charming: when i went back a few nights later, he even said: “Ahhh! Where’s the stewardess?!” (i had neither the heart nor the Japanese fluency necessary to explain to him that she’s not a stewardess but rather a retro-dressing DJ, so i merely told him that she had liked his sushi very much.)

Price can also vary wildly there...last week, after an absence of several months, i went there twice...the first visit of the week was solo: i had my usual sashimi/sushi omakase, but as the fish was particularly delicious and because i hadn’t had sushi in a while, i ate a huge amount: probably about 7 more pieces of nigiri after the usual omakase would have ended: it was a great, thoroughly satisfying meal...i ordered 3 glasses of Bourgogne Aligote, plus Hideo-san’s beer...the bill was a little over 200 dollars, after tax, before tip...a little steep, and higher than i’d remembered ever having paid solo...

I went back a few nights later, this time with a Japanese girl...we had a sashimi/sushi omakase for two, a bottle of Bourgogne Aligote (45 dollars: same price as 3 glasses), a beer for Hideo-san, but we didn’t have any extra nigiri: the total price was...a little over 200 dollars, exactly the same as when i went there solo!...which didn’t make sense...not sure how he computes things...

Makoto-san, the bald, second chef (of three) is more evenly friendly, speaks fine English, and his sushi is very good...when i was there last week, he was supervising a younger chef and told me he had a back problem so was not making sushi himself that night...

The waitresses and hostesses at Ushiwakamaru, while usually professional and efficient, tend to be not very friendly...i’ve heard through the grapevine that it can be a difficult place for them to work, and there is a tension that comes through in the service, which is usually without smiles...and sometimes, when i go there w/o a reservation and the hostess is new, the reception can be downright cold and unwelcoming: when i went solo last week, i was initially told they were full and i had to spend about 5 minutes talking her into giving me a seat at the sushi bar, where i knew they could squeeze me in since it was very early (”Yes, of course i will be having omakase”, “Yes, i understand that you need the seat in two hours, i’ll be gone long before that”)...

I like the lighting and space at Ushiwakamaru: nice, yet casual...it’s a good spot for a date, or solo, or with a friend: it works for all sorts of occassions...

So while i love 15 East and its chef Masato-san and i’d say 15 East is, for my personal taste, the “best” sushi in NYC, Ushiwakamaru is still my more regular go-to spot...and while i eat non-sushi Japanese food (soba, izakaya dishes, etc) often, these two places are pretty much the only places i eat sushi in NYC these days (though i do plan on trying the Brushstroke sushi bar soon)...

A lot of the other places in town simply don’t work for me for various reasons: i don’t like the vibe at Yasuda nor the drink options (i drink wine or shochu; i don’t drink beer or sake), i hate the space/atmosphere at Kanoyama, etc...and since i’m eating very little rice these days for diet reasons, if i’m going to splurge diet-wise on some sushi, i’d rather splurge dollar-wise too than waste the precious carb meal at some of the more moderately-priced, merely-ok places...

Curious to hear other people’s recent experiences and impressions.

  1. a
    AgentUmami Aug 17, 2012 02:04 PM

    Spot on review about the nuances of this place. It was my first 'serious' omakase, but I knew enough from reading past posts to buy Hideo-san the triple pint. He was quite charming, but then we were two enthralled fangirls a bit past tipsy and willing to trot out our embarrassingly pedestrian Japanese.

    I remain an Ushi loyalist, so much so that I now prefer the warmer rice to other preparations. Plus, there's just something quirky and New York about the place in the best possible way.

    1 Reply
    1. re: AgentUmami
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      Simon Aug 20, 2012 08:36 AM

      hi AgentUmami, glad you enjoyed Ushi.

      "we were two enthralled fangirls a bit past tipsy" -- i'm sure you made Hideo-san's night :)

      Incidentally, yesterday was Ushiwakamaru's 20th Anniversary Party, held at Del Posto...100-dollar admission, but with all you can eat/drink there (including crudo, antipasti, etc) and limitless wine and prosecco it was a steal, esp when followed by an afterparty at Ushiwakamaru where Hideo and others dolled out sushi at frenzied pace to a buzzed, packed room that felt a bit like a college party...good fun...

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      foodwhisperer May 26, 2012 10:48 PM

      Great post covering the many aspects of eating sushi at Ushiwakamaru,15 East,et al.. I will try Ushi again,either with a friend who is a regular or perhaps with a beautiful woman. I agree that without a reservation,the greeting can be cold.whereas,i have had room made for me at 15 East, Jewel Bako, Kanoyama and more.As for the rice being a bit too warm at Ushiwakamaru , I didn't notice. However, if you ever try Sasabune, you will see rice that is way too warm. So warm it fallas apart if you use your fingers to pick it up. the chef tells you to use chopsticks,which is absurd.Sushi is meant to hold I your hand. As far as the big mug of beer chef Hideo pours,you explained all that and that it is only 5 bucks. so I understand his shtick now. The second chef,with the shaved head,i believe came from sushi gari or nobu ,as far as I recall my conversation with him. prices do vary at omakase places,for various reasons,that we will never figure out. My solo bill is quite often in the 200 dollar range. I ate at 15 east with a pretty woman who the chef knows and my bill was 200 for two. At jewel Biko it varies greatly,and I've had some omakase meals with many pieces,at remarkably low price. Kanoyamo,is different than the other places,in that he itemizes every piece of fish. The bill is always high.occasionally I get comped a dish. The new room with the oyster area is much more conducive to enjoying an omakase meal than years ago,when you had to eat in the noisy crowded sushi bar up front. I hear ,Kanoyama is expanding again,so it will even be better. Nobu-San is an artist,and is a pleasure to eat his omakase. Kanoyama has a huge selection of fish from Japan .also a great oyster selection.
      I always offer to buy the sushi chefs beers,it is amazing how that helps make the meal better.
      Also, speaking some Japanese gets you the respect of chef, figuring you appreciate his talent. They do seem to know when a customer appreciates ,the art of sushi making.
      15 east is my favorite sushi place. Brushstroke and kanoyama and jewel bako are my go to places .

      17 Replies
      1. re: foodwhisperer
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        Simon Aug 16, 2012 09:16 PM

        Finally tried the sushi bar at Brushstroke -- wow, pretty awesome...totally diff in style and vibe et al from my two other favs Ushiwakamaru and 15 East, but my meal at Brushstroke was fantastic and i think i now have 3 favorites...will surely return repeatedly...thanks for the rec...

        1. re: Simon
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          foodwhisperer Aug 17, 2012 03:44 PM

          Simon, i am really happy you got to try Ichimura-san's sushi at Brushstroke. i hope he gave you the initial shiokara and kimo assortment. He is such a nice guy with a great demeanor. I am really pleased you liked your meal there.
          By the way , I had a fantastic meal at Blue Ribbon izakaya, Interstingly depending on which sushi chef you get, the omakase varies greatly. They normally give omakase all at once and not one piece at a time, but at the sushi bar, you can tell them how you want it. If you speak Japanese it changes the whole ballgame. The price is amazingly inexpensive at $75 for top quality fish, and as much as you can possibly devour. The only issue I have is no fresh wasabi. The chefs want it, the management doesn't. I think the "newbie" will judge the fish by the fact of fresh wasabi or not fresh wasabi.,,, they are accustomed to places like 15 East etc whipping out the shark skin and grinding it in front of you . So people think having fresh wasabi means good fish ,,and not having it means not so good. But it isn't true. The quality of the aji, saba, shima aji , uni, and more were top notch,,,,the tuna was good but it was Kindai farmed tuna for the blue fin. One of the top sushi chefs there is from Ushi, that's why i mentioned it here. Kaz is his name, perhaps you know him. He worked at Ushi for a long period of time.

          1. re: foodwhisperer
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            Simon Aug 20, 2012 08:38 AM

            yeah, Ichimura-san at Brushstroke has such a low-key, humble, and charming vibe...and the assortment of starter dishes was a treat...

            re: Kaz, i knew him back when he was at Ushi...nice guy, good sushi chef...

            1. re: foodwhisperer
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              Simon Aug 28, 2012 08:36 PM

              Had another amazing knockout mel at Brushstroke sushi bar...just a lovely and addictive place :)

              sidenote: do you know if Masato-san at 15 East is on vacation again?...i've passed by outside a few times (i live 5 minutes walk away) and he hasn't been at the sushi bar in the last week...

              1. re: Simon
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                foodwhisperer Aug 28, 2012 10:54 PM

                i've been going to Ichimura-san about once a week now. It is addicting. I've also been frequenting Blue Ribbon Izakaya... they are starting to amaze me there,9 especially the chef from Ushiwakamaru aka Kaz). Omakase is really good there, and the kitchen food i.e. bone marrow,, morel mushroom with yamaimo (cooked) is awesome. I wasn't aware Masa went on vacation, i know he was waiting until the others were done vacationing in August. I'm glad i didn't go to 15 east tonite, it would have been disappointing if I didn't see Masa there.

                1. re: foodwhisperer
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                  Ricky Aug 29, 2012 06:34 AM

                  he's back this week.

                  1. re: foodwhisperer
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                    Simon Sep 13, 2012 09:24 AM

                    i went to Brushstroke last night, and, as i'm reducing carbs these days, asked Ichimura-san for a sashimi-only omakase: it was staggeringly good...i can't remember ever having eaten quite so much topnotch sashimi in one sitting...and, he brought me a bowl of red miso soup w/ a few pieces of pumpkin and okra in it -- also delicious: neither too sweet nor salty...just a fantastic place...

                    1. re: Simon
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                      foodwhisperer Sep 13, 2012 09:40 AM

                      I should try that all sashimi omakase. I want to cut some carbs too. I think i had rice with every dinner this week. Did Ichimura-san give you any guts (wata, shiokara,kimo etc)? How was the tuna? seems big Bluefin should start showing up now

                      1. re: foodwhisperer
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                        Simon Sep 13, 2012 11:51 AM

                        he didn't serve me any shiokara and kimo this time, but he did the two visits before -- i esp like the kimo...

                        Tons of chu-toro and o-toro in the all-sashimi omakase (like just when i thought there was no more coming, he'd serve up another 3 or 4 pieces)...the chu-toro was esp good...

                        18 hours later and i still have "food-high" from all the rich and delicious fish...

                        i may post a separate post about my current fav low-carb meals around town...

                        1. re: foodwhisperer
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                          Simon Sep 22, 2012 09:24 AM

                          foodwhisperer, i went to Brushstroke last night w/ a friend -- amazing as always, but there is news (maybe you've heard): Pete Wells' review specifically of the sushi bar will be coming out on Wednesday -- i'm guessing a) that it will be very positive, and b) that Ichimura-san's nice quiet elegant oasis will soon be swamped...

                          1. re: Simon
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                            foodwhisperer Sep 22, 2012 09:04 PM

                            Well, I'm happy if they get a good review... yes it will be swamped,,but at least they will stay in business and be able to get a bigger variety. It's all good. Also, Sushi Gari is opening around the corner, so a good review is good timing for them.
                            I went to Blue Ribbon tonite, there otoro was top notch, but way way expensive , around $19 a piece. Logistically I couldn't do omakase, omakase would've have been the way to go. I'll be at Brushstroke next week.

                            1. re: Simon
                              squid kun Sep 25, 2012 12:29 PM

                              You guessed right: three stars ... www.nytimes.com/2012/09/26/dining/rev...

                              1. re: squid kun
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                                Simon Sep 25, 2012 02:17 PM

                                thanks for the link...happy that Ichimura-san got such a nice rave -- though i think i will hit Ushiwakamaru and 15 East for my next few omakases til the buzz quiets a bit :)

                                1. re: squid kun
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                                  sushiman Sep 25, 2012 08:56 PM

                                  Ate there again last night. Great as usual. He deserves the kudos. I put my name on one of the seats.

                                  1. re: squid kun
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                                    foodwhisperer Sep 25, 2012 10:11 PM

                                    awesome

                          2. re: Simon
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                            sushiman Aug 29, 2012 08:23 AM

                            IMHO Ichi is doing the best sushi in NYC now. His old restaurant on 2nd Ave was fantastic, but I think that his "exile" at Hatsuhana somehow motivated him to up his game. This is even better. And props to Chef Bouley for giving him free rein to do his thing.

                      2. re: foodwhisperer
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                        TheDescendedLefticleOfAramis Sep 25, 2012 05:32 PM

                        the sazae tsuboyaki is always cool during the summer
                        killer namako in the cold
                        i miss his artwork, pre-facelift

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