Restaurant review

Restaurant review: Shion 69, rue Leonard

Shion Uino began the New York part of his sushi-making career in 2017, in the basement of a building just west of the United Nations. The restaurant he watched over there, Sushi Amane, has no room for more than eight people at a time, but demand was high from the start.

Prior to moving to New York, Mr. Uino had worked for over eight years under the direction of Takashi Saito at Sushi Saito, a traditionalist sushi-ya in Tokyo who has achieved near-mythical status, in part because of the tenderness of his braised abalone and octopus, and in part because of his policy of accepting reservations only from former customers and their friends. Tokyo’s best-connected hotel concierges raise their hands when a guest wants to dine at Saito. In 2019 the Michelin Guide of Japan struck off from Saito, which had been awarded three stars, on the grounds that it was for all intents and purposes not open to the public. (For the same reason, Michelin has also abandoned Sukiyabashi jiro.)

Seats at Sushi Amane were easier to find. Mr. Uino gave the impression of someone always trying to replicate an ideal flavor in his head, and every time I ate at his counter he seemed to come closer. I was struck by his skill in persuading the ingredient featured on each piece of nigiri to give more of itself. Before I could review Amane, however, the pandemic descended and scattered all of the pieces on the New York Dining Room chessboard.

In May, Mr. Uino emerged at 69 Leonard Street in TriBeCa, an eight-seat sushi counter former chef Derek Wilcox had taken to California. Under Mr. Wilcox, when the restaurant’s full name was Shoji at 69 Leonard Street, its strength was the charming seasonal opening classes that built on Mr. Wilcox’s training in kaiseki cooking. Now that Mr. Uino has arrived and the restaurant has been renamed Shion 69, rue Léonard, the meal takes place more fluidly. Mr. Uino seems to have an intimate understanding of every aquatic species that goes into his kitchen – its chemistry, its muscle structure – from the first plate of sashimi to the last piece of nigiri.

He does it without theater. There is a seat at 6 p.m. and another at 8:30 p.m. Shortly before the start of the meal, Mr. Uino walks into the secluded dining room, greets all returning patrons seated in front of the bright quartzite counter, and spends the next few minutes quietly grating a stalk of pale green wasabi.

When he has had enough, he will place a pinch of it on refrigerated plates for the sashimi dish. It often opens with pinkish-pink slices of kue, the firm, clean-tasting long-toothed grouper served with an icy freshness that accentuates its tight, crisp texture. He can pair it with soft pieces of tsubugai, a Japanese conch, extracted moments before from its trumpet-shaped shell, or with belly of wild kanpachi, the same cut as the otoro, which quickly goes from farm to almost melting as you eat it.

It is awakening, a call to sit down and pay attention to the transporting series of entries about to appear. The cold dishes alternate with something cooked by Hiroto Ochiai, the sous-chef, who followed Mr. Uino from Sushi Amane. Steamed managatsuo, a firm, lean Japanese butterfish that sits in a shallow ponzu bath and is topped with an angry red scoop of spicy grated daikon, may be followed by a sea urchin. In July, peak season for Japanese sea urchins, Mr. Uino served two varieties of his hometown Amakusa, including large orange lobes of plain murasaki that seemed to continue to unfold new depths of flavor even after they left.

“Those two are very hard to get,” he said, “but I’m from over there so I can get them.”

There can be a slice of monkfish liver marinated under green flakes of yuzu zest, or an amazing slice of poached octopus until its skin is a smooth paste that barely clings to a white circular core that opposes a facade of resistance before melting.

An icy appetizer has become a calling card for Mr. Uino: a salad of crab mounded inside the deep bowl of its shell. With the exception of a few weeks in late fall when he prefers snow crab, he uses kegani, known in English as hairy crab for the short hairs which make it look like a scrub brush with paws. The meat of the crab is mixed with the soft mustard-colored hepatopancreas extracted from its innards. (In a lobster, this piece of anatomy is called a tomley, which sounds less alarming.) Dipped in black vinegar with a liminal dose of ginger, the crab has a fleeting sweetness that’s tempting to hunt. Usually I eat the first few bites quickly before remembering that what I really want is for it to last.

About an hour after the start of the meal, Mr. Uino will start slicing the fish for the nigiri. He won’t be in a hurry and won’t be nervous. He looks like someone preparing for a battle that he knows he will win.

His style of sushi is called Edomae. It mimics sushi that is salted and marinated in Tokyo vinegar before refrigeration. However, there are few strong flavors in Shion. The rice is soft and not too tangy.

When kombu-curing and marinating are used, they rarely draw attention to themselves. Everything is calibrated to bring out the inherent flavor of seafood, most of which Mr. Uino imports from Amakusa with the help of a friend who kills, bleeds and prepares the fish using a method called shinkei-jime.

Mr. Uino’s interventions are practically invisible, apart from the traces of hair left by his knife. A few deep gashes help the otoro – the prized, ultra-fatty cut of the tuna belly that is the color of milk with a few drops of blood – to melt as soon as it touches your tongue.

Dozens of precise, shallow incisions tenderize thick white bands of aori ika, the sweet and creamy large-finned reef squid. Just before placing it on your plate, finish it off with sea salt and a few tangy drops of Japanese citrus sudachi. Look down the counter and you see head after head recoil in pleasure.

He’s in the zone now. Soon he will dig a deep slit from the stem to the stern of the sliced ​​aji, horse mackerel, then drive a dot of chopped green onions into the cut. Passionate nigiri watchers will recognize this as the mark of a chef whose mentor, or mentor’s mentor, apprenticed with sushi master Shinji Kanesaka, as did Mr. Uino’s former boss, M Saito.

Towards the end, a steaming plate of simmered sea eels is carried by the wings. Mr. Uino handles your eel with care as it is about to collapse. This will not be the case, however, until you have brought your portion to your mouth. Brushed with a fine syrup, it’s almost sweet enough to be a dessert, but there’s another dish to come.

Egg sushi called tamago can be airy like a cake or thick like custard; at Shion 69 Leonard it’s dense, supremely smooth, shiny, the color of butterscotch, as baffling as a magic trick and as fun to eat as pudding, if you could scoop up pudding with your fingers. It is a confection from another world.

Interplanetary transport is obviously not cheap. Shion 69 Leonard Street now charges $ 420 per person including tip. The prices of the most prestigious sushi counters, including Masa, Sushi Noz, Nakaji and Yoshino, are now $ 100 or more higher than almost every other restaurant in New York City.

The chasm is so wide that many people who have cultivated an appreciation for the quality of the sushi served at Shion will feel that they cannot afford to go, and some seats at the counter will go to customers who do not. don’t think twice. the cost but won’t really know what they taste like. The city finally has sushi that aspires to be some of the greatest in the world, but eating it has become a game of the rich.

What the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not receiving stars.

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