For the Free-Spirited Traveler:
A Sushi Joint to Rest His Feet
There are plenty of sushi restaurants downtown, but none of them are anything like this one. To enter Yujin, you cross a curved wooden bridge that spans a small rock garden, walk past barrels of sake stacked in a window, and pass through heavy glass doors with handles made from wooden samurai swords. Once inside, you feel you ought to stand on the threshold like a swordsman in a Kurasawa movie and bark out your order for a bottle of sake.
The bar has a ceiling made with 29,500 wooden chopsticks, and is lined with just seven bar stools (one for each of the seven samurai). Here, unless you opt for one of the two dozen bottles of sake offered, you can start off the evening with a vodka martini flavored with plum shochu, or a lychee juice with orange liqueur and vodka, or a dash of coffee liqueur with espresso and crème fraîche. (Do the people who make up these cocktails ever actually drink them?)
The hostess, in a short, strapless black dress, a dark river of hair flowing down her back, showed us into the large, softly lit dining room, which is set with pale bird’s-eye maplewood tables. One wall is covered with a forest of swaying gold birch trees etched on glass, set over an apple-green background (the restaurant’s designer, glass artist Theo Samurovich, died earlier this year at the age of 35 before finishing it). The opposite wall is made of sloping pale-gray Ultrasuede, and is set off from the banquettes by a strip of recessed lighting. The sushi bar, painted a distressed, smoky crimson that looks like lacquer, is in the back. The seats are not the usual stools, but curved, throne-like chairs designed by Hans Wegner and fit for a shogun. A tilted mirror hangs above, reflecting the working chefs and the entire dining room, which is lit with candles. The staff is, of course, in black. It all adds up to a magnificent setting for chef Eiji Takase’s esoteric “modern” Japanese cuisine.
The name Yujin means “free-spirited traveler.” Mr. Takase is from Kyushu, a remote island in Japan, where his mother owned a traditional Japanese food shop and his father was the county rice distributor. He was a black belt at 14 and eventually made his way through Tokyo kitchens to support his martial arts, ending up in New York, where he worked at Iso, Match and Sushi Samba. His menu at Yujin is more ambitious than it was at his previous restaurants. It’s in the tradition of Nobu Matsuhisa, who first introduced New Yorkers nine years ago to a style of sushi they’d never had before. Like Mr. Matsuhisa, Mr. Takase has spent time in Peru, where he made extensive cooking and eating tours, so Latin flavors like aji and amarillo chilies and lime juice abound. But Mr. Takase casts his net even wider, incorporating truffle oil, ravioli, corn bisque, shrimp dumplings and even roast chicken into the menu.
Edamame beans arrived at the table in their salted green pods-bar food, to be eaten like peanuts. You can’t stop once you’ve started, and they’re even better with a squeeze of the lime provided. I ordered a platter of five different kinds of seaweed in a miso dressing, a dish that did not provoke much enthusiasm among my companions until they saw it.
“The seaweeds look like the tundra floor after the first frost,” exclaimed one of my friends, getting a bit carried away by the display of glistening fronds, in hues of emerald, purple and brown, that was carefully set out in a white bowl. They tasted as though they’d been picked straight from the sea.
The raw fish first courses were excellent. A special of the day, sashimi of golden-eye snapper with kiwi and ume plum paste, came with a garnish of gold leaf, no less. If a special of four different kinds of yellowtail is offered, don’t pass it up-it’s not for nothing that this fish has been called the foie gras of sashimi. Salmon sashimi was wrapped around chunks of fresh white peaches and served in a refreshingly acidic sauce made with green apple that was laced with pieces of grapefruit.
But the sampler of four appetizers was a disappointment, except for a red snapper ceviche with lime and aji amarillo sauce. It included underseasoned, stringy spare ribs, bland steamed dumplings filled with rock shrimp and served in a corn bisque, and a curiosity: ravioli made with tuna, avocado chunks and cilantro in a mint pineapple sauce-interesting when tried once.
So stick with the raw fish. The kanpachi tsukuri-baby yellowtail with yuzu, black truffle oil, Japanese sea salt and green apple sorbet-was a perfect balance of flavors. Tuna tartare with mountain caviar, crispy shiso flakes and lime ginger salt is a lovely contrast of textures. Yujin roll, made with tuna, yellowtail, king salmon, tobiko and avocado wrapped in daikon and served with swirls of two sauces, a spicy mayonnaise and a soy sauce , “sings in the mouth,” as one friend put it.
But the regular sushi is surprisingly tough, like a take-out sushi made in advance. It’s not pristine, and is utterly conventional. The sashimi was fine, but nothing stellar either.
Apart from roast chicken, the main courses are all seafood, served in generous portions to boot. Mr. Takase is too free with the truffle oil. A special of scorpion fish with truffle oil was good, but the sautéed striped bass had truffle oil too, with hijiki, turnip and moro miso sauce, and it all became a bit much. The grilled yellowfin tuna steak was very good, cut in thick rare pieces surrounded by an unctuous ebony teriyaki sauce made with black sesame.
Pastry chef Akiko Kimura’s desserts take a distinctly American route, with an overlay of Japanese subtlety in their design. They include a creamy mascarpone cheesecake with a rice cracker crust, and a warm molten dark chocolate cake with chunks of banana and butterscotch sauce. The ginger crème brûlée and the panna cotta are delicate and fine.
Yujin is one of the best-looking and most comfortable restaurants I’ve been in, and the menu is as imaginative as the décor. It’s a welcome change from the routine sushi parlors of downtown Manhattan.