A smiling hostess greeted me at the door of Sumile, a small Japanese restaurant in the West Village. “You’re the first,” she said. “Would you like a seat at the bar?”
“I’d prefer to go to the table, if you don’t mind.”
“I’m sorry, you can’t do that until your party is complete.”
There was no getting around her, so I sat down at the bar and ordered a glass of wine (there are 10 choices, at $10 each). From here I could see into the kitchen, which is tucked inside a boxlike structure made of shimmering green glass walls that turn a translucent, misty white halfway down. I watched the cooks at work, soundlessly tossing food in sauté pans, heaving stock pots and meticulously lining up tiny piles of unidentifiable ingredients on long white plates with their fingers, like kids building with Legos. The effect was mysterious and dreamlike, and reminded me of a theater piece by Robert Wilson.
The chef at Sumile is a young American, Josh DeChellis, who has worked at Bouley and Union Pacific. His food is Japanese-inspired, and much of it is served tapas-style. I only had a few minutes to observe the performance in Sumile’s kitchen, because my friends arrived and we were taken to a table in the back of the restaurant.
The dining room is long, narrow and windowless, with a sloping ceiling resembling that of a boathouse. Its plain white walls are lit from below with a violet light ( sumile means “little violet” in Japanese). Cherrywood tables are lined up on either side of the room, flanked by banquettes covered with soft suede pillows and backed with high rattan dividers. At the end of the room is a green glass wall and a long mirror that reflects the soft light emitted by hanging lamps.
Alas, we were seated directly under a corner loudspeaker that was playing disco Muzak very loudly, and the noise bounced up from the white limestone floor. What followed on this night was torture, an evening during which we were unable to hold a conversation without screeching, and the waitress kept turning down the music only to have it turned up two minutes later by someone else. It was like eating in a bunker. On another night, however, when I sat in the front, it was surprisingly comfortable (apart from some vagaries with the heating system, which was either blasting hot air or turned off completely) and not claustrophobic like the back of the restaurant.
We had our dinner tapas-style, choosing a number of little plates at $14 each. At three apiece, that came to $42 per person before dessert (a selection of the plates can be served as main courses, for $28). Some of the dishes were marvelous, beginning with the hors d’oeuvre sent out from the kitchen, a tartare of Boston mackerel threaded with hiso and served with a bowl heaped with paper-thin sheets of rice paper, which resembled communion wafers, sprinkled with sea salt and powdered seaweed.
If four of you are sharing dishes, eating here can be a bit of a tease. You want more than just a bite or two of the king crab, which came molded into a disk, layered with a lemony green yuzu gelée and topped with sevruga caviar. It was delicious. And we wanted more than one each of the Kumamoto oysters, which were lightly splashed with pineapple nori vinegar that brought out their clean, briny flavor. A cold, clear consommé was laced with tiny bits of tomato and served with braised Gulf shrimp and a bracing dash of horseradish. This was a brilliant dish. Another remarkable combination consisted of chunks of poached hamachi, served with avocado and thin slices of pickled melon, a subtle and complex play of flavors. I also liked the tea-smoked anago (sea eel) that was cubed and lined up on poached daikon radish.
All of Mr. DeChellis’ dishes are beautifully presented, but they don’t all taste as good as they look. I found the tête de veau pressé (a.k.a. head cheese) bland, although it was perked up with crispy ducks’ tongues, an idea that a couple of my friends found scary. (I must admit, I can’t ever look at those little tongues, which they serve in Chinatown, without thinking of all the ducks that are sacrificed for one small bowl of them.) Sea scallops with pork tongue was dull. “You expect art and you get boilerplate,” said my companion sniffily. On the other hand, “pulled” skate, served in a small white pot with grilled eggplant and shishito pepper, was tender and meaty and had a pleasant charcoal taste. And a rich, soft egg custard, perfumed with porcini and laced with shreds of duck confit and thick slices of matsutake mushrooms, was also good.
Monkfish, never one of my favorites, was given a peppery wake-up call with spicy cabbage and Meyer lemon. And chunks of organic chicken breast were perfectly cooked and served in a lovely, light yellow wine ragout with snails and cèpes. The snails didn’t have a lot to say, but then they needed garlic.
Desserts run along more conventional lines. The exception is the sesame paste mixed with gelatin and shaped into “dice,” served with bright dots of wild raspberry sauce. The paste tastes sort of like chocolate and sort of like beets-an unusual sensation, but very good. The cheesecake, made from fromage blanc and served in a bowl with black mission figs in syrup, was one of the best I’ve tasted. The chamomile panna cotta had a consistency more of Philadelphia cream cheese than the usual quivery little Italian concoction, and it came with lemon confit. I had no complaints about the Gianduja pot de crème, which was like a frothy hot chocolate, served with an Italian coffee biscotti for dunking.
The food at Sumile is original and fascinating, but it isn’t for everyone. When we had finished with the little plates, one of my friends said, “Now I’d like a steak.” Not all the dishes work, but Mr. DeChellis is an intrepid chef. There are glimpses of perfection that make Sumile a find. Just don’t sit in the back of the restaurant.