428 Greenwich Street, New York NY 10013 (between Vestry and Laight streets; map); 212-274-0428
Service: Very attentive, if you're one of the only people at the sushi bar
Compare It To: Blue Ribbon Sushi, Sushisay
Must-Haves: Red snapper collar, medium fatty tuna
Cost: A minimum of $75, if you want the best-quality fish
In New York, the search for the perfect sushi meal—not too expensive, the highest-quality fish, perfect sushi rice—is like the search for the Holy Grail. That's because sushi restaurants and experiences tend to fall into two distinct boxes, moderately priced sushi palaces like Tomoe Sushi, and high-end orgasm-inducing sushi establishments like Kuruma Zushi, Sushi Yasuda, and, of course, Masa.
So when I started reading a lot of internet chatter about, yes, another "secret, under-the-radar" sushi joint with no sign frequented by Japanese business people, I must admit it piqued my interest. Blog posts touting Sushi Azabu had the sushi chef at the highly regarded 15 East sending his customers to Sushi Azabu.
A tip from a highly skilled sushi chef was all I needed to hear.
Since there were two sushi chefs and two parties in the restaurant when we were there, each party had its own sushi chef.
We ordered an omakase of the day ($55) and another assortment ($68). The food just started coming to both of us, so I really have no idea which dishes came with which order.
We started with tiny slices of marinated lotus root that packed a surprising flavor punch.
Slices of tuna and amberjack sashimi followed, accompanied by some Japanese microgreens.
We watched him put a piece of fish in aluminum foil into a convection oven. A few minutes later out came impossible tender and delicate red snapper collar. Eating fish collar requires some effort to extract the flesh, but boy is it worth it.
Marinated and grilled toro ($16.00 a la carte) had a strong sea flavor and meaty texture.
Tiny pieces of fried red snapper in rice vinegar didn't do much for me. Its essential crunchy friedness was undermined by the rice vinegar.
Tuna two ways featured maguro and medium fatty toro. The medium fatty toro was so insanely good I wanted to order a pound of it to go.
More big red snapper came to our little corner of the sushi bar with a nutty and sweet scallop.
I have not commented on the quality of the sushi rice at Azabu. It was perfect, tender, lukewarm, and just moist enough.
Our man took a blowtorch to a piece of salmon, giving the sweet glaze on the salmon just a little crunch.
A big, sweet shrimp, was just that.
The most unusual piece of fish we were served was a piece of shad with marinated seaweed. It almost tasted like a fresh sardine.
A meaty piece of sea eel was paired with a creamy piece of California sea urchin.
Tiny, surprisingly light pieces of sweet omelette were the sweets that ended our meal, and they were followed by the traditional cup of miso.
So where do I place Sushi Azabu in the New York sushi pecking order? As a traditional, no frills, no surprises sushi bar, it is leagues above places like Tomoe Sushi, which it should at these prices. It is probably closer to Blue Ribbon Sushi in cost and quality of the fish, but it is not as ambitious or adventurous. It's more like Sushisay.
It's as traditional as Kuruma Zushi, but the quality of the fish is not as high, which a really serious sushi person couldn't expect given the price differential.
You go to places like Kuruma Zushi and Sushi Seki to be blown away, to be transported to another world.
Sushi Azabu has no such grand designs on your senses, your time, or your hard-earned money. It's a just the facts (or should I say fish), m'am, no bullshit kind of sushi bar. High quality fish presented properly and traditionally in a pleasant setting at a fair price. New York's sushi denizens could do a lot worse.