Shion Uino began the New York leg of his sushi career in 2017, in the basement of an apartment building just west of the United Nations. The restaurant he ran there, Sushi Amane, seats no more than eight people at a time, but demand was high from the start.
Before moving to New York, Mr. Uino had worked under Takashi Saito for over eight years at Sushi Saito, a Tokyo traditionalist sushi-ya that has attained an almost mythical status, in part due to the tenderness of its braised abalone and octopus, and partly because of the policy of only accepting reservations from previous customers and their friends. The hotel concierges with the best connections in Tokyo raise their hands when a guest wants to dine in Saito. In 2019, the Michelin Guide to Japan canceled Saito, which had been awarded three stars, because it was inaccessible to the public in all respects. (Michelin also dropped Sukiyabashi Jiro for the same reason.)
Seats at Sushi Amane were easier to find. Mr. Uino gave the impression of someone always trying to mimic an ideal taste in his head, and every time I ate at his counter, he seemed to get closer. I was struck by his ability to coax the featured ingredient on each piece of nigiri to give more of itself. But before I could judge Amane, the pandemic settled and scattered all the pieces on the New York dining chessboard.
In May, Mr. Uino at 69 Leonard Street in TriBeCa, an eight-seat sushi bar whose previous chef, Derek Wilcox, had left for California. Under Mr. Wilcox, when the full name of the restaurant was Shoji at 69 Leonard Street, the strength was the fine season opening courses that were based on Mr. Wilcox’s training in kaiseki cooking. Now that Mr. Uino has arrived and the restaurant has been renamed Shion 69 Leonard Street, the meal is running more smoothly. Mr. Uino seems to have a deep knowledge of every aquatic species that enters his kitchen – its chemistry, its muscle structure – from the first plate of sashimi to the last piece of nigiri.
He does this without theater. There is one seat at 6:00 PM and another at 8:30 PM. Shortly before the meal begins, Mr. Uino enters the secluded dining room, greets any repeat customers sitting over the luminescent quartzite counter, and spends the next few minutes quietly grating a pale green shank of wasabi.
When he’s had enough, he puts a pinch of it on chilled plates for the sashimi course. It often opens with rosy-pink slices of kue, the firm and clean-tasting grouper, served with an icy chill that accentuates its tight, crunchy texture. He can combine this with chewy cuts of tsubugai, a Japanese conch, recently removed from its trumpet-like shell, or with wild kanpachi belly, the same cut as otoro, which quickly goes from firm to almost melting as you eat it.
This is reveille, a call to sit up and pay attention to the enthralling array of nibbles about to appear. Cold dishes are interspersed with something cooked by Hiroto Ochiai, the sous chef, who succeeded Mr. Uino of Sushi Amane. Steamed managatsuo, a firm, lean Japanese butterfish sitting in a shallow tub of ponzu and topped with an angry red ball of spicy shredded daikon, can be followed by sea urchins. In July, the peak season for the Japanese hedgehog, Mr. Uino two varieties from Amakusa, his hometown, including large orange lobes of murasaki uni that seemed to continue to unfold new depths of flavor even after they ran out.
“Those two are very hard to get,” he said, “but I’m from there, so I can get it.”
There could be a slab of marinated monkfish liver under green flakes of yuzu husk, or an amazing slab of octopus poached until its skin is a smooth blob that barely clings to a white, rounded core that forms a facade of resistance before melting away.
A chilled appetizer has become a calling card for Mr. Uino: A crab salad heaped in the deep bowl of its shell. Except for a few weeks in late fall, when he prefers snow crab, he uses kegani, known in English as hairy crab for the short hairs that make it look like a scrub brush with legs. The crab meat is stirred with the tender, mustard-colored hepatopancreas unearthed from its entrails. (In a lobster, this bit of anatomy is called tomalley, which sounds less alarming.) Dipped in black vinegar with a minimal dose of ginger, the crab has a volatile sweetness that’s tempting to hunt. I usually eat the first few bites quickly before remembering to actually make it last.
About an hour after the meal, Mr. Uino starts cutting fish for nigiri. He won’t rush or act nervous. He looks like someone getting ready for a battle he knows he’s going to win.
His style of sushi is called Edomae. It emulates the salted, vinegar-marinated sushi of Tokyo in the days before refrigeration. However, there are few strong flavors at Shion. The rice is soft and not overly sharp.
When kombu curing and marinating are used, they rarely draw attention to themselves. Everything is calibrated to bring out the inherent flavor of the seafood, most of which Mr. Uino imports from Amakusa with the help of a friend who kills, bleeds and cooks fish using a method called shinkei-jime.
Mr. Uino’s interventions are virtually invisible, save for hairline cracks left behind by his knife. A few deep cuts will help otoro — the prized, ultra-fat cut of tuna belly that’s the color of milk with a few drops of blood in it — melt as soon as it hits your tongue.
Dozens of precise, shallow incisions tenderize thick white bands of aori ika, the sweet and creamy big-finned reef squid. Just before putting it on your plate, he tops it off with sea salt and a few sour drops of the Japanese citrus sudachi. Look down on the counter and you’ll see head after head rolling back in delight.
He’s in the zone now. Soon he will make a deep slit from the stem to the stern of the sliced aji, the horse mackerel, and then press a speck of finely chopped green onions into the cut. Nigiri spotters will recognize this as the hallmark of a chef whose mentor, or mentors mentor, was apprenticed to sushi master Shinji Kanesaka, such as Mr. Uino’s old boss, Mr. Saito.
Towards the end, a steaming plate of braised sea eels is carried in from the wings. Mr. Uino is careful with your eel as it is about to fall apart. However, it won’t happen until you’ve brought your portion to your mouth. Brushed with a thin syrup, it’s almost sweet enough to serve as dessert, but there’s one more dish on the way.
The egg sushi called tamago can be fluffy like a cake or thick like custard; at Sushi Amane it is dense, extremely smooth, shiny, the color of butterscotch, as confusing as a magic trick and as fun to eat as pudding, as you could pick up pudding with your fingers. It is a delicacy from another world.
Interplanetary transport is clearly not cheap. Shion 69 Leonard Street now charges $420 per person, gratuity included. Prices at the most elite sushi counters, including Masa, Sushi Noz, Nakaji, and Yoshino, are now $100 or more higher than nearly all other New York restaurants.
The gap is so wide that many people who have developed an appreciation for the quality of the sushi served at Shion feel that they cannot afford to go there, and some seats at the counter will fall for customers who don’t think twice about the cost but won’t really know what they taste. The city finally has sushi that aspires to be among the greatest in the world, but eating it has become a game for the rich.
What the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not getting star ratings.