August 25, 2014 | BITE: My Journal

Uni Bliss at Soto (CLOSED)

No complaints about this $15 cocktail at Soto: It’s a guaranteed high for sea urchin fiends.
No complaints about this $15 cocktail at Soto: It’s a guaranteed high for sea urchin fiends.

          Uni tempura -- they lie there stretched out, side-by-side, dappled with golden uni powder. Imagine that bracing sea brine wrapped in a sweet, fried crust -- culinary obsessions mesh. oh yes, again. Oh yes. There is only one left. Am I gazing at it too longingly? “It’s yours,” says my companion Wilford. I don’t argue or even nod in his favor. I savor the thought and then I’m eating it. It’s mine.

This inscrutable façade on Sixth Avenue is definitely a challenge.

          Memories of uni bliss have brought me back to Soto. I’m not sure why it took so long. That geometric white façade with odd cutouts and no sign of a name. It seems forbidding. Dare to enter. Only friends of the family wanted here.

The big red circle is the sole design statement: homage to the Japanese flag?

          Amazingly, for last minute on a Friday, we have managed to book two seats at the bar. The miracle of August in Manhattan. On my only other visit, we were four with a notorious Daddy Warbucks at a table extension of the counter. After two and a half hours of delicious excess, our host alerted the chef we were ready to stop.

          I’m early. “Do you come here often?” I ask the young man on my left being served by our waitress. Hopelessly unoriginal opening, I grant you. But unoriginal is always safe. I hold up the menu, dated August 15, 2014. “I’m so excited. Look -- uni, so many ways.”

My only quibble: There could be more deep-fried sea urchin dappled with sea urchin powder.

          “You must have the cyu toro tartare,” he says, pointing to the listing “From Sushi Bar.” “And the langoustine.” My friend Wilford has arrived. He orders a beer. I ask for the pinot noir. I can’t help noticing it’s a stingy pour.

          We are into the foreplay now, scanning the menu, agreeing on must-haves. So many: Lobster sashimi, uni wrapped in thinly sliced squid with a quail egg.  Oh yes. Chawanmushi of course. And live soft- shell crab, deep-fried, certainly. Streamed lobster with uni mousse.

Chef Sotohiro Kosugi has an academic air as he tends to the dissection of the sushi.

          “You order,” says Wilford, fanning himself with the napkin. It’s like the first time my father let me take the wheel of the Buick. I’m in charge. Wilford is an uni fanatic too.  Shouldn’t we let the chef decide? “There is no more sushi omakase," the waitress says, “only a sashimi omakase if you wish.” No, we are expected to order.

Chopped sweet raw shrimp with ginger under a crown of uni is napped with a shiitake-dashi broth.

          Botan ebi tartare. A huddle of sea urchin is piled atop chopped sweet raw shrimp with a splash of shiitake-dashi broth, a tangle of powerful scents and textures to experiment with. Alone. Together. All at once. I dip in my small wooden spoon. Eyes closed.

Black and white tofu signals a calming change of pace that deserves an encore.

          The chiaroscuro of tofu -- a soft, black sesame custard square and a white one, served with wasabi soy and a fizzle of soy foam, brings a calm. No, not a calm exactly, a variation of thrill, a plateau for the uni tempura to blast off from.

This sybaritic layering of avocado, caviar and fatty tuna is more than worth the $25 splurge.

          It hardly seems possible, but more luscious critters follow the tempura, raw now, wrapped around each other in a martini glass -- the uni cocktail with a wasabi kick. Another knock-your-socks-off apparition.
          The guru on my left has departed, but here is the fatty big eye tuna he suggested. Like a jewel, a summer brooch, a luscious round painted with avocado coulis and piled with chive, caviar, a tangle of radish and nori spikes. I divide it in half and leave the slightly larger half for the noble Wilford, who ceded me the extra tempura’d beastie.

I’m grateful to the Soto habitué who suggested we must order the sensuous broiled langoustine.

          The langoustine is a stunner, delicately broiled with a coverlet of shiitake thins in a creamy emulsion. Now the chef delivers the first sushi. Shima aji (jackfish). Madai (New Zealand sea bream). Kampachi (amberjack). Crisp coverlet of mirugai (giant clam) on rice. And sweet raw shrimp (spotted prawn). One for each of us.

Come to Soto for the beguiling small plates, not the rather mundane sushi.

          I eat each one whole, as you are supposed to. I am shocked by the lackadaisical rice -- it isn’t warm enough, or flavored enough and the small saddles under the slivers of fish fall apart in my fingers. My experience of the supernal rice at Sushi Nakazawa has spoiled me.

One lst blast of sea urchin in this uni-squid roll seems like a perfect finale to us.

          By the time the sea urchin-squid roll arrives and we eat each cut nubbin slowly, savoring the sweet sea taste, I feel I have eaten enough. Wilford agrees. There does not even seem to be appetite left for dessert. The bare wooden seats are economy class too. Looking at the bill -- we split $120 each, including tax and tip -- it doesn’t seem we ate that much. The pace, the gasping and swooning, may very well add to the sensation of fullness. I’ve already marked the new must-haves along with the must-repeats on the stolen menu for next time.

Seared madai (sea bream) sits on a small saddle of listless rice.

          I have heard rumors about the chef’s fiery temper. According to the Daily News, Sotohiro once stormed back and forth through the dining room waving a knife after a guest complained the tuna was too fatty. And who could blame him?…fatty being the desired quality of the best and most costly tuna. Tonight he kept his head down most of the night, directing a pair of seconds on either side, delivering sushi with a nod, a verbal description and even a tight smile.

The chef seems remarkably calm tonight  -- disappearing into the kitchen between sushi orders.

          We get up to go. “Oishii,” I say, bowing my head. “Beautiful.” Maybe he’ll remember me. 

375 Sixth Avenue between West 4th Street and Washington Place. 212 414 3088. 5:45 to 11:45 pm.

Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

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