“How lovely,” I thought as the elegant slate which held my third course was placed on the silken smooth ash bar in front of me. All of a sudden the trivial “lovely” was rammed out of my brain when the aroma that had been wafting a split second behind the dish caught up and settled in front of me too. My olfactory senses buzzed, trying to figure out how this small piece of toast that had been sliced and lightly crisped carried with it the sensation of a most seductively aromatic loaf of bread fresh out of the oven. Yeasty, warm, slightly rich and sweet, the milk bread was the perfect vessel for it's worthy companion: fatty toro tartar, coaxed into a smooth creaminess wholly unlike your typical chunky encounters, blanketed with Osetra caviar whose nutty and mildly briny pearls popped pleasantly in my mouth.
This is just one of the stunning offerings on the Kaiseki tasting menu at Shuko, the recently opened Japanese restaurant just south of Union Square in Manhattan. Chef-owners Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau met while working under influential sushi master Masa Takayama, heading the NYC kitchens of Masa and Bar Masa, respectively. Both having started cooking in mostly European restaurants before settling into a focus on Japanese cuisine, their knowledge of and influence from these other food cultures makes itself apparent as they come further into their own creative space.
At Shuko Kim and Lau pay homage to Japanese tradition while shedding some of the characteristic austerity. In the vein of the casual-fine-dining that has swept today's food scene, no one took a second glance at the t-shirt that my friend was sporting, but I also felt completely appropriate in my fancier dress. Manicured food presented on gorgeous Japanese ceramic and stonewares arrives to the guests at the 20 seat hand-sanded ash bar and the three other tables fit along the wall, while hip-hop music cuts through the speakers. A few well-crafted cocktails accompany the thoughtful wine and sake list. Though it might take some diners aback at first, the relaxed vibe doesn't detract from the immensely special experience that you are in for.
When considering the two available tasting menus, neither is easy on the wallet. Lau and Kim don't take the quality of their ingredients lightly, and the extra care taken to procure these specialties won't go unnoticed by you. Whether it be the tender market asparagus, tomato, mushrooms, and eggplant that provide the bed for coal grilled lobster, or the pillow of finely grated black summer truffle that blanket it, the carefully chosen ingredients pack sumptuous and expressive flavor. Luxury and extravagant items pepper both the $135 sushi-only omakase menu and the $175 Kaiseki tasting, but they are presented with a restraint and balance that many chefs don't have the skill or modesty to use, resulting in an elevation of the components in this setting.
For first-time diners I recommend spending the extra $40 for the Kaiseki menu, which is what I did. And after the entirety of its eight composed courses, following the traditional Kaiseki structure, twenty expertly prepared pieces of sushi, and two desserts, every single penny felt worth it. To an inexperienced diner, as I was, these may sound like two distinctly different meals squished together into one, but it was an artfully composed undulating suite of balanced textures, flavors, acidity, and richness.
If you opt for the sushi omakase menu, you'll miss the flaky Dungeness crab, its shredded flesh mimicked by ultra thin shoestrings of lightly vinegared cucumber and given a faintly flowery appeal by chrysanthemum. Slices of stunningly cooked hanger steak lay among a scattered salad of summer beans, nasturtium, and purslane. Ocean trout sashimi enveloped crisp, raw batons of white mountain yam, the packages sprinkled with crispy panko, pearls of salmon roe and doused in ponzu. And as a transition into the next movement of the meal, suimono, a warm clear soup of honshimeji mushrooms and dashi.
These first courses arrived in the hands of smiling servers from the open back kitchen, but now Lau, Kim, or one of their skilled cooks are the ones delivering the delicacies to your sushi block from the counter in front of you. Their practiced hands press and shape rice, often adding a touch of freshly grated wasabi, drape the day's selection of beautiful fish, and glaze with a brushstroke, all so swift and deft that if you get distracted in conversation for only a moment, you'll miss it. Glistening seductively, pieces of toro, skip jack, scallop, fluke, cobia, and dorade paraded through at precisely timed intervals. A roll of juicy grilled toro sinew scattered with thai bird chilies and scallions created an exhilarating interruption in the stream of raw fish with a burst of spicy flavor. Cold, clean, creamy, and mildly briny Hokkaido uni changed my mind about sea urchin [Hover over images for a bit more info on Shuko's gorgeous sushi]. And I've never liked soft shell crab until it was handed to me tempura fried and cradled in a strip of nori like a taco.
Clearly delighted and surprised at every bite, my dining companion and I are obviously having a ball. Lau can tell; and every time he offers up the next morsel the grin on his face has widened. After our eighteenth piece of sushi, he asks if we would like to try something else. With a sly grin he presents us with two last pieces, the pressed rice topped with glistening scallop roe. As scallops are hermaphroditic, the brilliant rust red female roe sack and the pale cream colored male one are found in the same shell and now side by side on our plate. As if consciously upholding gender stereotypes, the female part was melt-in-your-mouth creamy with a sweet and delicate brininess that made me believe in aphrodisiacs. The male, however, is an aggressive punch in the mouth, like you've just swallowed a gulp of salt-laden seawater. Lau, watching our reactions, slinks back up to us and asks which we preferred. We all agree that we prefer the female and the three of us exchange a moment of uncontrollably hilarious suggestive giggles and grins.
Through dessert Kim and Lau give us closure of an elegant and stunning meal, but also smartly offer a punctuation that sums up the philosophy and personal character presented with dinner at Shuko. The traditional Kaiseki dessert comes first: a seasonal peach granite, icy and boasting so much flavor that I can practically feel the ripe peach juices bursting in my mouth and dribbling down my chin and hands. It's served with a warm cup of earthy matcha green tea. Then they gleefully slap you in the face, playfully flipping tradition on its head and practically throwing it out the window. Your last course is a slice of Kim's apple pie, a la mode, with burnt bay leaf ice cream.
47 E 12th St.
Mon-Wed: 5:30 – 10:30
Thurs-Sat: 5:30 – 11:30
Sushi Omakase Tasting: $135
Coursed & Sushi Kaiseki Tasting: $175