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15 East - Pedestrian Sushi and A Scaly Foot

There has been a lot of hype on this Board about 15 East, and I was quite excited to try the restaurant on a recent visit to New York.

Now good sushi is expensive and New York City, with rent and other overhead, is an especially expensive place to run a restaurant, so at $140 for omakase, I was not exactly expecting sublime sushi. But based on all that hype, I was expecting something along the lines of the perfectly decent sushi I could expect to find for the same price point, give or take, in Los Angeles.

Sadly, it was not to be, perhaps a function of the higher overhead of doing business in New York versus Los Angeles, meaning that after paying rent, taxes and salaries, there is little left over for the food.

Someone else on this Board – one of the few people not hyping 15 East – compared the sushi quality there to what you would find at a department store in Japan, and I think that sums it up nicely. Every single piece of sushi in my $140 omakase (as well as the non-sushi dishes) was average – there was not a single piece of fish that made me think “wow, this is really high quality fish.”

I also found the restaurant most unpleasant. There is a lovely Japanese expression “shibui,” which describes a Japanese aesthetic that is hard to completely define or translate, but in my mind conjures up refinement and a subdued elegance. I would describe the whole 15 East experience as anti-shibui.

First, when I walked in and sat down at the sushi bar, there were quite a few people standing with drinks and talking loudly close to the sushi bar area as they waited for their tables in the dining room. So, it was not exactly the feeling I hope to get at a good sushi bar of leaving the hurly-burly world behind and stepping into a bastion of refined tranquility.

The sushi bar itself was cramped and seated immediately to the right of me was a barefoot woman with extremely scaly feet who, perhaps confused that she was in a sushi bar and not a yoga class, was sitting cross-legged with both her feet up in the chair. (I am not making this up.) Because the sushi bar is so closely situated, her right scaly foot was practically in my lap. It was not pretty. As I said – the anti-shibui. And it was not like she sat in that position for a minute or two – no, she spent her entire meal in that position periodically widening her legs (in a mini-dress, no less) to reposition herself. In a different establishment with more attentive service, one would hope that the staff would have noticed and explained to the woman that it is customary to both keep one's shoes on and keep one’s feet on the floor when sitting at a sushi bar, but at 15 East, the staff either did not take note or did not care.

If the food was not so pedestrian, sitting next to Miss Scaly Foot might not have been so annoying, but combined with the pedestrian food, all I could think of was that I should have tried a different sushi bar. This brings up the philosophical question of whether a restaurant can be blamed for the boors who frequent it. Perhaps “blame” is the wrong word, but part of the dining experience, especially when you are in close quarters, are the others who frequent the restaurant. Although I haven’t been in years, I used to dine frequently at Kuruma and I just cannot imagine anyone sitting barefoot and cross-legged at the sushi bar at Kuruma. Different restaurants attract different crowds. Perhaps a Japanese restaurant that attracts more of a business crowd or more Japanese diners would have been a better choice for me. (Every Japanese person to whom I have told the story of Miss Scaly Feet has looked at me bug-eyed).

In between discussing where they would be going the following day to attend yoga class, Miss Scaly Foot and her dining companion kept loudly extolling the “absolutely amazing” sushi. Miss Scaly Foot’s companion also paid for her dinner because the companion works at some high-paid job that she loathes, so her only consolation in life is to be able to take her friends like Miss Scaly Foot out to “amazing” restaurants. Since the food was, in fact, far from amazing, this just added to the whole feeling of having landed in yahoo-land.

The meal was capped off by low-quality sencha. An old saw is that the way to judge a sushi restaurant is on the quality of the tamago, since if the tamago is well made, it is likely that the restaurant pays attention to detail in other matters as well. I was not served tamago at 15 East, but to me, one way to judge a quality of a Japanese restaurant is by the sencha that the restaurant serves. In my experience, really good sushi bars serve high quality sencha. The sencha at 15 East was as pedestrian as the sushi. Which, in the end, made perfect sense.

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  1. That's really good writing; sorry about the experience. Are there any sushi (or for that matter, sashimi) specialists in New York that you currently would feel comfortable recommending?

    2 Replies
    1. re: Pan

      This was my first New York sushi in a number of years, so I am not familiar with the current scene. I do think as a general matter because of various global issues it is getting much harder to find decent sushi than in years past.

      1. re: omotosando

        I'm in total agreement with you-pedestrian. My go to places for sushi in no particular order: Kyo Ya, Sushi Zen, Brushstroke, Sushi of Gari UES, Sassabune.

    2. Thanks for your thoughtful critique of 15 East, omoto, and I'm sorry your experience there was so poor.
      I have to wonder aloud, though, why you didn't speak directly to your insensitive neighbour, or at least motion to one of the staff to do the same on your behalf. There was no need for you to suffer silently for the whole of your repast there.

      1. First off, that sucks about the poor experiences.

        In both your EMP and 15E review you mentioned situations that I think could have been resolved if you spoke up. One of the things I personally like about both places is that if you mention something, they will take care of it quickly. While many prefer near-psychic, anticipatory service, I personally don't find a need for that, I just want issues resolved in the rare cases they come up.

        Also on the subject of not speaking up, were you served by Masato himself? Did you engage and interact with him? Much has also been said on the board about the need to dine specifically with him. I'm sure if you mentioned your experience and what you were looking for, he would have more stuff that fit your palate.

        I haven't been back to Kuruma in years either, but my last dinner at Kuruma was 3x the price of my last dinner at 15E. A possible conclusion might just be that in NYC, you need a $500pp meal to get what you would consider"non-pedestrian" level sushi, whether it be at Kuruma or Masa.

        1. Hmmm. Maybe 15 East needs a bouncer to keep out the rif-raff.......? And enforce proper sitting etiquette. (That is offensive!)

          1. Nice review.

            And I agree. Aside from the sencha, I always judge a sushi restaurant's shibui based on whether or not they have a Emjoi Micro-Pedi handy.


              1. Fantastic review. I had the same feeling (sans scaly foot), yet couldn't have described it so perfectly.

                I also have had excellent refined sushi at Kuruma. If you haven't been in years you might want to check out some other restaurants, as I've found Kuruma is a little tired.

                Yasuda is great although strangely you do have to deal with them mentioning a 90- min limit although I've never seen it enforced.

                Masa is fantastic but not only sushi of course and runs about 600$ pp IIRC.

                Something different and very zen would be kajitsu. Vegan experience.

                2 Replies
                1. re: dndicicco

                  Thank you so much for reminding me about Kajitsu. I saw it in May when I was buying tea at Ippodo in the same space and made a note to try it, and then I promptly forgot about the place. I will definitely give it a try next time I am back in New York.

                  I notice from Kajitsu's website, it says "In traditional Japanese cuisine the dishware is an integral part of the meal." That was another thing I didn't like about 15 East - the sushi being placed directly on the counter, rather than on dishware (and the dishware that the non-sushi dishes and dessert were served in was not particularly nice, nor were the teacups).

                  Sad to hear about Kuruma becoming tired - the New York Times really dissed it in a recent review. Maybe New York can no longer sustain that kind of restaurant.

                  1. re: omotosando

                    Funny, when I was in Tokyo, the sushi was served on the counter.

                    Sounds like someone has an ax to grind.

                2. I had a fantastic dinner there last night.

                  Shinko was the highlight.

                  I guess that it is all about timing.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: sushiman

                    I guess that it is all about timing.

                    And the footwear of your dining cohorts.

                    1. re: sushiman

                      Pedestrian Shinko and Kyushu Uni

                      I'm curious about tranquil sushi bars in Tokyo where are they?

                      Every single one(3 and 1 star michelins) I've been have been party atmospheres where chat topics with itamae and regulars range from mma, hostesses, fishing, panchinko, ramen to horse racing. And customers range from salary men with their mistresses, hostesses on dohan, to tourists doesnt make for much of a shibui atmosphere.

                    2. The Scaly-Foot situation sounds like a real problem. It's a small bar, so that's not good. But it seems like this review is hardly about the food at all. The meal is dismissed in one sentence "...everything was average..." without even a mention of what was served. Meanwhile, paragraphs are spent talking about the (admittedly rude) people eating next to you.

                      I had dinner there last night. I hadn't been for a while, so I was curious if perhaps the quality had declined. I found the opposite to be true.

                      I'm forgetting some things, but the meal kicked off with sea bass sashimi, poached octopus, sea snail, uni/ikura "cocktail." Numerous pieces of sushi - some of the standouts were shinko (amazing), grouper, delicately torched kinmedai, tuna progression (akami/chutoro/otoro), a lightly smoked sockeye salmon, aji, iwashi, saba, giant clam, ark shell clam, an uni progression (Santa Barbara, Hokkaido, Kyushu), melt-in-your mouth anago, all finished off with a negitoro hand roll, with nori so crisp and delicious it rivaled the best I've had in Japan.

                      If this is pedestrian sushi, I'm scared to try the real thing.

                      4 Replies
                        1. re: lexismore

                          Your meal sounds great to me. I keep reminding myself that I must try 15 East (especially since I can't dine solo at the sushi bar at Sushi Nakazawa--I'm really getting very annoyed at the restaurants that won't seat solo diners).

                          1. re: ellenost

                            It was great. Just make sure when you reserve, you request a seat with Masa - he doesn't serve the entire bar.

                            That sucks about solo diners, although I actually prefer 15 East to Nakazawa (although I've only been to the latter once, due to the reservation process).

                          2. re: lexismore

                            Wow that sounds like an ideal meal to me, although sometimes I have a craving for a cooked dish a la Hamachi Kama.

                          3. Since you apparently, based on your comments, are fluent in Japanese. I think you should have spoken to Shimizu-san in Japanese about your problem with the woman next to you. Personally i'd go back and hope I have a mini skirted open legged woman next to me. However, without scaly feet. Maybe she saw that spoof youtube where you take your shoes off at a sushi restaurant.
                            As far as the fish goes. 15 East uses the highest quality fish. The sushi chef has bought fish at Tsukiji for many years with his master and the famous Jiro <cough>. His master is Jiro's best friend . Shimizu-san is one of the most knowledgeable sushi chefs around. Karuma is a total ripoff place IMO.
                            When Shimizu-san was at his previous location Jewel Bako, which got them a Michelin Star, it had the atmosphere you hoped for. Quiet, perfect service, high quality fish, stored in wood boxes ( Bd of health now scared 15 East so he switched to refrigerator). It was a Sawada like atmosphere.
                            New York is a party , active, city, and from a business standpoint 15 East tries to be more Geijin friendly. More loose , more understanding of those who are not that familiar with sushi. But if you had a conversation with the chef, you would have gotten better treatment and more concern for your issues.
                            I think the perfect sushi restaurant in NYC, that would be suitable to your liking is Ichimura at Brushstroke. it is an 8 seat sushi bar. Very quiet, Very much Japanese atmosphere. The chef is an old guy, who is very humble and specializes in his aging of the fish. It is possible to have the finest tea from Japan there. Hon-Kokuro tea. It is the tea where you can eat the leaves after you drink your third brew of it. I think this is more the place for you.
                            I am sorry you had the bad experience at 15 East, as I love the fish there, I love the tamago, and I love the sushi chef.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: foodwhisperer

                              "Personally i'd go back and hope I have a mini skirted open legged woman next to me" +1

                              "Kuruma is a total ripoff place IMO" +1

                              1. re: foodwhisperer

                                Foodwhisperer - your insight is fantastic!

                                I haven't had a chance to dine at Ichimura yet. My most recent trip I chose Azabu over Ichimura for some random reason.

                                Anyway, my favorite types of fish/crustacean are things with distinctive textures (e.g., uni, giant clam, geoduck, ika when they make that cross cut pattern) and marinated flavors (e.g., kohada, iwashi), would Ichimura be the best bet?