White Plains, NY, USA
For many there is little discernible difference between sushi available in a nearby mall and in pricier places in the city. Cut fish is cut fish, right? Wrong. Not all cut fish is created equal. There is a reason why that old “family visitation rule” compares itself to fish (“after three days they start to stink”) — no one wants stinky fish.
Few sushi chefs in the United States know this better than sushi master Yoshimichi Takeda, owner and chef of Sushi Nanase in White Plains, NY. Adjacent to the popular Japanese Daido Market, it's easy to miss the unadorned entry leading into this unassuming hole-in-the-wall. But through those forgettable doors — past the disheveled anteroom and beyond the simple Noren curtains — is a tiny room which, by the time you leave, will live large and majestic in your mind.
Having grown up in Japan and cooked at such sushi thrones as Nobu and Masa, Chef Takeda understands what it takes to make world-class sushi. But rather than presenting high-priced, super-luxe sushi creations like at those Michelin-acclaimed eateries, he preferred to follow a more old-school path. So in 2004 he opened his own restaurant where he’s been serving sushi made the traditional Japanese way ever since. Inside, he works 15 hours a day, six days a week to present not just remarkable food, but a piece of himself. He is on the phone every morning to his select purveyors of fish in Japan to get exactly the right ingredients, flown in daily. His wife, Masayo Takeda, runs the front of the house -- which is to say the 10 feet in front of the counter that holds just 6-8 small tables.
One of the special things about the sushi here is its simplicity. The sensation with each bite is one of elegant minimalism. That’s not just about the fish; it’s about the chef’s treatment of it. Some is cut, neat, from the body and served immediately. Others are marinated to adjust for texture and depth of flavor. The octopus is massaged to relax the meat and make it tender; the eel is flame cooked in a flash to crisp up the skin and warm the interior just so. But however the chef prepares it, it is all about the essence of the ingredients which he coaxes forward for his guests. It’s a big job and gives Takeda-san little rest. But it is his chosen life, his passion and his honor.
Chef Takeda tries to make every meal better than the one before it. His repeated preparation of trademark dishes — like thin-sliced scallops with a drizzle of sesame and rice vinegar and crowned with a diamond of black truffle — is a constant effort of perfection. His commitment to improvement is unending. In the world of sushi, a chef so passionate and self-demanding is known as a “Shokunin.” This absolute obsession and dedication to constantly perfecting his own ability, with little rest or distraction, is visible in Chef Takeda. You can see it in his serious face, hear it in his few words; taste it in his life’s work. It is the pinnacle of the craft — the goal of every serious sushi chef in Japan, reached by comparatively few. And he is one.
Our menu at Sushi Nanase was Omakase, where we effortlessly allowed Chef Takeda do his thing as only he knows best. It consisted of eight dishes, served in a relaxed mood but carefully thought-out style. Aside from indicating what was on the plate and some direction on which order to eat it in, little explanation was given by Chef Takeda’s wife of the journey we were embarking on. That’s because with great omakase the food speaks for itself, reflecting the chef’s commitment to his guests' umami experience. No further narration is required.
Our feast began with a delicate pallet-opening consume of nothing less than a perfect tomato, simmered in its own juices to expose its true nature. Following such overture came fresh clams with a sesame brine that elevated the glistening bivalves with a clean complexity that hinted of the sea. So simple was the perfect asparagus with a miso drizzle and sprinkle of dried baby shrimp that followed. Only to be chased by a plate of hirame (fluke) sashimi with a mild sesame vinegar swirl evocative of the cold, shallow waters off Nihon.
The meal is carefully orchestrated; the pacing of it precise. The arrangement of each course, and of each component within it, is set by the chef to provide maximum experience. Little accompanies the food on his table. A small dish of his own homemade soy sauce — unique in its fruity taste and silky viscosity — and a delicate mound of carefully-selected Japanese salt is about it. Each is special and to be used sparingly. And each will stop you with a moment of wonderment.
Long, slender plates of succulent vegetables were set before us, draped over black seaweed, molded into cubes, pickled and confitted. The flavors were clean yet complex, with surprise discoveries of taste and texture with each piece. Following that the chef flash-flamed a cut of salmon, with barely-crispy skin and a light glaze of sweet soy that mingled with a whisper of smoke which had penetrated the flesh. How such a simple-looking slice of fish could deliver such robust flavor was a a riddle we could not solve.
We were left to linger slightly over another pour of sake, pausing to allow our palates to settle and our exuberance to calm. Until Masayo-san reappeared and slipped us a treasure trove of sushi, presented clean and simple and in the order that our chef wanted it to be experienced. Separated by seven other umami jewels to balance the flavors — salmon, shrimp, eel, snapper, mackerel and more — were three kinds of tuna from the coveted Bluefin. First was a generous slice of otoro, whitish with marbled fat, representing the biggest, melt-in-your mouth flavor one can find in tuna. Next came chutoro, where the fatty magic of otoro merges with a region of firmer flesh. The final was the more delicate akami, its firm and silky texture tempering our landing from the maguro high the chef had just sent us on. And critical to all sushi, the rice reflected Takeda-san’s years of dedication to that skill alone. It imparted a depth of flavor which, in itself, was a thing of gustatory beauty. Bedazzled with the glistening fish, each offering was a combination of perfect cookery that, once slipped into the mouth, can not soon be forgotten.
The luxury of experiencing the shokunin artistry of Chef Takeda doesn’t come cheap, unless measured within the realm of world-class Japanese sushi dining. The omakase came to about $130 per person which, contrasted against comparable Manhattan sushi, is a very good value (try up to $550 at Masa at last check). Because of the remarkably high quality of the fresh-flown fish and advance planning at Sushi Nanase, one must make a reservation at least three days early and can't cancel without penalty. And don’t be late, because when it comes to Chef Takeda’s food, timing is important and his patience can be short. Some critics focus on those strictures negatively, but any true sushi aficionado would just say "Well, yeah. Of course...." Because they know that the promise of excellence by Shokunin Takeda is elevated to a level not found in many sushi establishments, and that his unspoken insistence for perfection — perfection in himself — translates into authentic Japanese culinary masterpieces. Which is why tiny Sushi Nanase, despite being known by few, is a hallowed hall by those who do.
522 Mamaroneck Avenue
White Plains, NY