Sasabune… the quest for NYC’s best sushi

After going to Neta and Sushi Yasuda, I began to ask myself. Who has the best sushi in Manhattan? There’s a very short short-list, and Sasabune is on all of them. I will not make a judgement until I have tried all the contenders.

Sasabune is on the upper east side and practically in the East River. It comes with an interesting message: “No california rolls! No spicy tuna rolls! Trust me!”, the restaurant commands on its door.

The sushi bar is extremely cramped, and since I was there with others, I didn’t make too much of a row about staring at the chefs. We were seated in a separate rickety little room with green chairs and little disposable plastic-wrapped hand wipes.

Oysters: 7/10 Kumamoto oysters are not my favorite. I also didn’t understand what the little round things were. they were filled with shredded crab meat?

I couldn’t understand a word the waiter was saying, but I think he said it’s mussels, octopus, and baby abalone on the half shell: 5/10 Everything was okay and bordering on too crunchy. The abalone in particular was like chewing through a carrot.

Monkfish liver: 8/10 it had a really mild texture but strong taste – like fois gras of the sea. We also found out during this course that monkfish is not kosher. My friends found out what they look like in its entirety – they are fugly.

No idea what this was. It almost tasted like snail in that it had the same texture as shellfish but was softer and “muddier” in flavor. 8/10. I like snail or whatever it was.

While I was eating all the shellfish, my kosher friends got white tuna, which is pretty cool.

2 types of tuna 8.5/10: I didn’t think the o-toro was as good as other places, but it’s still very very good. I also didn’t understand why they put sauce on the regular tuna but no sauce on the toro. I also now understand all the complaints about loose rice.

I used my fingers for the rest of the meal. Even with my fingers, rice was falling apart and sticking to my fingers.

Clockwise from the left: red snapper, black seabass (?), fluke 7/10: The fluke was good. I find that I like fluke best with a citrus sauce, and this one was rather sour. Red snapper was somewhat tasteless, and what I heard was “seabass” tasted mostly like sesame seeds. I like sesame seeds, but I don’t think that was the point.

Clockwise from left: Miso black cod, fluke fin, albacore belly. 8/10: The albacore was very bland, and the cooked fish… were well cooked fish. They were both extremely tender and delicious, but I would have liked them without rice. I love that Sasabune served the fluke fin… the most tender meat is always the hardest to get to, and I’m happy to see them served more often in restaurants!

I was starting to get full here from all the rice… but we must carry on.

Clockwise from the leftmost sushi in the top row: Clam, scallop, giant clam (?), salmon, no idea, striped bass. 7.5/10 The shellfish tasted very similar with varying sweetness and textures. It was fun to eat… except for the giant clam, which had a shiso leaf hidden inside. I love the flavor, but the leaf hit my tongue like sandpaper. The bottom row was good, but nothing too special. The salmon was probably as good as anyone else’s salmon.

Clockwise from the top left: Yellowtail, amberjack, uni, salmon roe, mackerel. 7-10/10 The yellowtail and amberjack were good. The uni was great! But was it greater than the other uni? It’s hard to say. The mackerel tasted aged and very very fishy. There’s something about this kind of mackerel vs. the mild flavor of spanish mackerel… I do wish someone warned me. Luckily I didn’t eat it last.

Thank the lord we’re almost done. I got a hand roll with shredded crab, and my friends got a hand roll with chu-toro. We were so full at this point that we were about to burst! 6/10: Sasabune did not have the best crab. Maybe they’re out of season, but then I’d still take points off for serving off-season seafood.

Overall for a place that asks so much of our trust (“Trust me!” is on the shirt of every employee), the restaurant has an odd delivery of its message. It is as if someone has drawn a masterpiece on a napkin, or perhaps it’s the astronomer in the Little Prince with the funny clothes, or perhaps they are just testing our trust. Some of the best quality sushi in town is served with wasabi mixed with mayo or some other paste, and soy sauce from a kikkoman dispenser. Roll after roll comes on plain white ceramic or even plastic dishware. Not to mention, they didn’t have hot towels, which are ubiquitous even in mid-level restaurants.

Perhaps the biggest testament of all to the chef’s quirkiness is the restaurant’s refusal to tighten up the rice after years of complaints. But if you trust the chef, and in a sense I do, then come and sit and enjoy the sushi. Come hungry.

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