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Monday, July 18, 2011

Yuba (New York, NY)

Chef Jack Wei of Yuba

I wish I'd discovered Yuba sooner. Really, I should have. This stylish, modern Japanese restaurant, a block west of Saint Mark's Place, is right next to a pleasant bar where Justin and I sometimes go for tango milongas. We must've passed by Yuba at least a half dozen times since it opened seven months ago, without it registering. Also, I should have heard something about Yuba, given that the two chefs who opened the restaurant, George Ruan* and Jack Wei, trained under Masa Takayama at the four-Michelin-starred Masa and Bar Masa, respectively. Pretty impressively credentialed, these guys.

* As of July 2011, Chef Ruan is "no longer with the restaurant", according to Yuba's press team.  

Thankfully, R. Lau's excellent Chowhound review finally clued me in and got me to this East Village restaurant on a recent evening. 

Yuba is spare and elegant, with pretty, natural wood tables, leather banquettes lining the walls, a high tray ceiling and industrial chic globe lights. There's something about the space and the vibe that reminds me of Naoe in Miami Beach: Both are classy, but low key and not at all stuffy or uptight. This is the kind of sushi bar where you wouldn't feel ashamed to order a piece of nigiri before your sashimi or worry about insulting the chef by using too much soy sauce on a pristine cut of fish. 

My dining companion and I started with three appetizers. The first, uni with yuba / sea urchin and tofu skin in tosazu sauce, included the most silky, delicate, fresh yuba imaginable. The yuba was more like fresh silken tofu than like yuba or tofu "skin" as one usually encounters of it. Only the barely detectable strands indicating where each layer began and ended distinguished this yuba from silken tofu. In the bowl, soft, creamy sea urchin and yuba each tried to out-creamy the other. (Yuba emerged victorious.)

Since we are well past uni season, this uni was not fresh, but a good, frozen product from Santa Barbara, the same quality as you would find at other higher end sushi establishments in the city this time of year, including Yasuda and 15 East. The uni was enjoyable, but not as sweet and delicious as it can be in season. (9/10)

Uni with Yuba

I didn't try my companion's sweet corn tempura, fried on top of a shiso leaf, but I thought the idea was a good one and the dish was attractively presented: the fried shiso leaf was translucent like stained glass. My dining companion thought the kernels were unpleasantly hard after frying, though, and a bit too oily. (Not Rated)

Sweet Corn Tempura

Another very stellar appetizer was the braised, layered yuba with a medley of mushrooms, which featured yuba that had been layered and pressed together -- the same sort of yuba that's used in many Asian mock meats. This time, the texture of the yuba was chewy-tender and substantial, which played well with the also-chewy-tender mushrooms. There was a wee bit of sweetness in the dish, but it wasn't cloying or overwhelming. (10/10)

Braised Yuba with Mushrooms

After our appetizers, we moved on to have several pieces of nigiri. In general, the shari in each piece of nigiri had a very good, chewy texture and it was neither too loosely nor too tightly packed. For my tastes, though, it was a little bit too vinegary. Every sushi itamae has his own recipe for sushi rice and each uses a slightly different proportion of salt, sugar and vinegar, different proportions of different types of vinegar, etc... I personally prefer my rice to be more neutral-tasting, so that the fish is the most noticeable flavor. I usually like to eat my nigiri sideways so the fish and rice hit my tongue at the same time (a practice that irked Chef Yasuda to no end, by the way: he wanted diners to eat his nigiri with the rice side down). Yuba's nigiri was best with the fish side down.

I was impressed with our first piece of akamutsu / deep sea snapper nigiri. The neta was very tender, with a bit of bite, fresh and flavorful. It was perfectly seasoned with a light brush of what I think was seasoned soy sauce. Before serving, Chef Wei seared the fish with a small torch, a treatment that deepened and highlighted the flavors. (9/10)

Akamutsu Nigiri

The kanpachi nigiri used fairly high quality fish, but it was not as buttery or intensely flavorful as kanpachi can be. My piece was nicely cut and smooth, throughout. (7/10)

Kanpachi Nigiri

Tai is not strongly flavored and this piece had a nice, firm texture, but did not stand out for flavor. In truth, I don't usually love this fish, but ordered it because I was attempting to choose lower mercury fish. Yuba's offering was probably about as it ever gets for me. The light brush of seasoned soy sauce actually brought out some more of the flavors than I usually taste. (7/10)

Tai Nigiri

Hamachi / Japanese amberjack / young yellowtail was, like the kanpachi, a fairly good quality piece of fish and it was nicely cut. The texture was rich and nicely melty, but the flavor did not "pop" in my mouth as a truly great piece would. (6/10)

Hamachi Nigiri

The piece of kinmedai / golden eye snapper came with a sliver of silver skin still attached. Like the akamutsu, it was slightly seared before serving, which really highlighted the deliciously rich flavors of the skin. It is a bit past the season for kinmedai and I know many people like to eat it in the winter when it is most fatty. This was not a bad cut for the season. (8/10)

Kinmedai Nigiri

Anago was nicely prepared and very flavorful, even without the sauce. Yasuda's preparation has nothing on Yuba's. My only "complaint" is that the piece was very, very large. I was not able to eat it all in one bite. (10/10)

Anago Nigiri

It's always difficult to judge based on just one meal, but if I had to generalize, I'd say that kitchen offerings are a bit stronger than sushi offerings at this point. There are some good pieces of nigiri, but nothing I tried blew me away like the yuba appetizers did. Still, I rather suspect that Yuba will make it into my permanent rotation in the same way that Soto has. I go to Soto for the best uni preparations in town (but not really for sushi). Yuba stands a good chance of becoming my go-to source for all things yuba (but probably not sushi). I suppose that's no surprise, really, considering the name.  


105 E 9th Street
New York, NY 10003
(212) 777-8188
http://www.yubanyc.com/

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