Ichimura (69 Leonard Str, New York, NY 10013, Phone: 212-404-4600, URL: https://www.sushiichimuranyc.com ) is situated in a quiet street of Tribeca. You push open a discrete black frame glass door (the mention ICHIMURA on it), and are greeted with a small waiting area bathed in immaculate white tones. Inside the sushiya, blonde and light cream tones as well as a brown-quartz counter from Brazil dominates the serene room.
Tokyo trained Chef Eiji Ichimura is regarded in NYC as one of their best Sushi Masters. He spent 40 years perfecting his craft. He was rewarded with 2 Michelin stars as well as 3 stars from the New York Times (In the competitive market of sushiyas in NYC, that speaks volume) when he was working at Brushstroke, which he left last year to open his own sushiya in early 2017. As in the glorious days of the true artisan Chef, Chef Ichimura is alone behind his counter, crafting his sushi pieces.
Once in the room, you quickly realize that quality is a theme they do not take lightly: the fish is elegantly stored in boxes made of blonde wood. It should be like that at any top sushiya, indeed. But it is not always the case. The dazzling (see my account of that sea urchin, below) sea urchin came straight from a beautiful box with its seal of quality and freshness in evidence. That sea urchin was actually one of the very best Japanese sea urchin I ever had anywhere around the globe, including in Japan (second only to the sea urchin I had the last time I was at Sawada)
The 2 hrs surprise tasting menu (it is the sole menu option) started with:
Baby sea eel in a yuzu sauce- the sea eel had an agreeable texture that you generally obtain from baby sea eels that are either cooked live or shortly after they are dead. A baby sea eel of utter freshness. Mixed with a yuzu sauce, this was eventful. 10/10
Firefly squid topped with an exquisite yuzu/miso condiment. Superlative ingredients and flavors that would not be out of place at a respectable 2 star Michelin in Tokyo, and this compliment also applies to the baby sea eel in Yuzu sauce. 10/10
Then, the gracious waitstaff (a well trained duo composed of a mild-mannered young man and energetic young woman whose hospitality standards would make any of the best restaurants of this globe very proud ) served a scallop/shitake mushroom chawanmushi (savory egg custard) – superb aromas coming from the superior fresh eggs (when people tell you that an egg is just an egg, just let them continue to talk and save your energy for the enjoyment of eggs of this quality, lol), the quality scallop adding to the great complex flavors on display 7/10
It was the turn of Chef Ichimura to serve us 3 sashimis: Squid, red snapper, bonito with fresh grated root wasabi. The bonito was aged, and partly seared. As with everything served all along this meal, every single ingredient was of top quality by high end sushi standards in NYC. At times, some of the ingredients would compete with the very best in Tokyo (I will mention it whenever that happens) 8/10
According to the medias, Master Chef Ichimura likes enhancing flavors with his own ways of aging fish. Eventhough his sushis are crafted with respect to the traditional Edo style, they do not feel as “austere” on the palate as some other traditional sushis.
The waitstaff came back with:
Golden eye red snapper/Japanese daikon. The red snapper was timely poached, its broth serving as a reminder of why the way the Japanese make their broths has inspired many Chefs cooking other types of food. Lots of depth in that broth. Chef Ichimura will appear, to his patrons, as the strong man at the counter, but he also has a skilled kitchen brigade, working in the background. There was some boiled daikon radish, again, tasting exquisite , topped with a world class condiment made of yuzu and miso. 9/10
Then a “communion” between Master Chef Ichimura and his patrons, a “communion” that came in the form of a series of 14 nigiris, served one nigiri at a time to each of the diners.
To the contrary of sushi Azabu, which rice just “melts” with the fish on your palate (one effect I like), here at Ichimura, you will feel both the grains of rice ( their rice, at Ichimura, is seasoned with a combination of red and white vinegar that is not strong, so that it does not negate the flavor of the fish) and the fish, and yet, they are complementary (which, regardless of the debates over which technique is the best for the combination of sushi rice and fish .. is what you are looking for in a piece of sushi…the fish and the rice of your sushi need to complement each other). During my visit, here, at Ichimura, the preparation of the rice, its temperature, its effect in mouth varied. This was intentional, of course, and showcased how meticulous Chef Ichimura is about the interraction of his sushi rice with the fish. Personally, I like the two methods of the preparation of the sushi rice: serving great quality rice at a temperature and consistency the Master Chef deems optimal to pair with the majority of his fishes (which is, obviously, less time consuming and may appear as less complex as the other method….but that did not stop the sushi experts in Tokyo to consider Mizutani –now, closed — as one of their best sushiyas) or adjusting the texture/temperature of the rice to the fish (naturally, more spectacular…but as with everything aiming at the spectacular, one single “miss” may lead to disaster. When I was in Tokyo, I tried one sushiya of this sort, a highly regarded one, actually, but it was a big disappointment).
Each nigiri is brushed with a well judged quantity of sweet soy sauce, allowing for a nice complexity of enjoyable flavors. To the contrary of some other sushiyas where the flavor comes either from the rice or from the sauce that is used to brush the sushi, here, the flavors came from every single component of each sushi piece, with the very important observation that …they went harmoniously well together!
When the first batch of rice arrived, and the Chef started to serve his nigiris , two scenarios came to mind (I forgot to ask to ask the Chef or the staff) :
-Either the rice is warm and the Chef starts with fishes that are a better match to warmer rice. Then, he adapts his fish offerings to the changing temperatures of his rice.
-his batch of rice has rice of different doneness and / or temperature.
Do not try to think that you are smart enough to second guess anything here! … as the TWO scenarios are POSSIBLE!
The first nigiri to hit that plate was the striped jack – rice is a bit warm, and you feel the grains (the grains he uses are large ones) desintegrating ONLY once in mouth, which is an enjoyable feeling in this particular case. The warm rice lifted the flavor of the fish really well. The consistency of the rice is carefully engineered so that different levels of softness of the rice are on display depending on the fish topping. Whatever the consistency, the rice always sticks together (even world class Mizutani had one or two pieces which rice failed to stick together). The subsequent nigiris had rice which temperatures varied in their progression towards body temperature and the contrast between the rice temperatures and the fish was very enjoyable. Whiting, ocean trout, golden snapper.
-Horse mackerel – Gentle / sweet and sour enjoyable flavor, which is not aged for days, as it is served hours upon they receive it. 8/10
-Spanish mackerel, which, according to the NYT, is aged for 10 days by Chef Ichimura. Quality fish, indeed, but this was the only nigiri, on that particular evening, which rice temperature I did not find ideal for the fish (way too lukewarm) and that affected the enjoyment of that sushi (it was not a pleasant piece on the palate as the temperature of the rice was a distraction, not an enhancement to the topping ) 6/10
-Red tuna – perfect match to the warm rice 8/10
scallop from Hokkaido – the rice that came with it was almost creamy, in an appetizing way. The proof that they also cook rice to varied doneness depending on the seafood it will be paired with. Another exemplary rice/seafood combination on all accounts (temperature/texture, profound understanding of the sushi rice/seafood synergy
Sea urchin nigiri from Hokkaido – rice, a bit warm, matching excitingly well the creamy sea urchin. The cliche goes like this ´sea urchin is sweet and luscious’, but oftently, that is not as evident as the cliche might suggest. Some top quality Japanese sea urchin I had, before, at high end sushiyas in Tokyo, were so tiny that you really had to force your mind into appreciating a fraction of whatever impression of sweetness and lusciousness people kept raving about. Not with this sea urchin I was having at Ichimura: here, evident lusciousness and dazzling natural sweetness were stealing the show at broad day light! This time, the grain did not dissolve in mouth (proof that Ichimura does not only work with doneness and temperatures of his rice…he takes the extra miles into ensuring how and when the grains should dissolve in your mouth…again, this seems to have been the case of many high end sushi Master Chefs …but on paper and in urban legends, only! rarely in reality. Ichimura makes it happen) and that was exactly what was required to match the creamy sea urchin. Fabulous customized design of that rice). 10/10
After that array of great sushis, the “communion ” deserved a little pause during which the waitstaff reappeared, with this time the serving of the Miso soup – the miso soup had a base of roasted quality nori in it, which led to a taste that’s very earthy. Interesting is how I would describe it, but I am afraid I do not have the required palate to properly enjoy this miso soup.
The “communion” resumed, with the ultimate two nigiris: fatty tuna (Otoro) and sea eel (anago). The Chef ensured he had the last words, before retreating to the kitchen:
World class would be the term that a sushi expert would use to describe what they did at Ichimura with the rice of the sea eel (anago) nigiri: a high level technical demonstration of how the perfect consistency of the rice for the anago is that impossibly soft airy rice Ichimura has crafted on that evening, just for that piece of anago. If you have spent some time crafting an anago nigiri, you will realize that it is a real pain. It is is a pain, also, for a Sushi Chef. It takes skills, it is time consuming, and experience will matter. Ichimura’s was as skillfully composed as the one I had at Mizutani. Exact same quality, exact same texture (Master sushi Chefs do have different ways to work the texture of the anago, with both Mizutani and Ichimura offering it in a version that is almost as soft as cotton. At Daisan Harumi and Sawada in Tokyo, the versions that were served to me were less softened, which I do equally appreciate) with the difference that Ichimura’s had a bit of the soft tiny bones in it (this is not a technical issue as one classic way to prepare the anago is to boil it till the tiny bones become soft. That is exactly what Chef Ichimura did achieve. But yes, indeed, some other Chefs try as hard as they can to make the tiny bones virtually absent, but both ways are legit). The tsume sauce as dazzling as the one I had at Mizutani. Ichimura impressed with one of the trickiest nigiris to craft. 10/10
The tamago was a summary of what was on display all along this meal: the technique? Flawless! The taste? Divine! As delicious as the benchmark tamago I had at Mizutani, though more sizeable. The ingredients? Eggs of superb fresh quality. 10/10
Chef Ichimura left the room, to prepare himself for the next seating (they have two seatings per night) : we knew this, because he went back and forth between his kitchen (behind a closed door) and his sushi counter, with, in his hands, the dinnerware he was going to use for the next seating.
The waitstaff appeared and served a dessert of mochi/macha ice cream/ shiratama (the white ball) – delicious flavors, superb chewy shiratama, lovely textures 9/10
Pros: (1)An intimate sushi dining experience of great level, where a respectable experienced Sushi Master is alone, behind his counter, crafting some of the very best sushis of NYC (2)Master sushi Chef Ichimura takes very seriously the importance of associating the right texture and temperature of the rice to the right fish. It’s supposed to be like that, at top tier sushiyas, but even in Tokyo, many sushi Chefs serve their rice at the same temperature, because it is less time consuming…or, in some cases, because they just do not know how to do it properly.
Overall food rating (Categ: top tier sushiya in NYC) 9/10. There was everything you would expect from a first-rate sushiya in a world class foodie city of the caliber of NYC: superior technique, great flavors, quality ingredients. Then, a bit more: plenty of thoughts were put in the rice preparation and that did add a lot to the enjoyment of the pieces of sushis.
Bottom line: Ichimura is, obviously, one of the great Sushi Masters of NYC, his Sushiya, a destination sushiya outside of Japan. NYC has a lot of great sushiyas and we all have our preferred ones. Azabu is currently my preferred sushiya in NYC .My love for Azabu aside, I was fair with Ichimura: it deserved a higher rating because it went to great lengths to make the work of the sushi rice technically complex . It deserved the nice words their cooking and craft gave me no other choice but to use profusely! Just ensure you understand Ichimura’s style: it is Edo style sushi enhanced by Chef Ichimura’s creativity. He bows before the altar of authenticity, therefore there is no butane blow torch, no salmon, no gimmicky interpretation of sushi, which is what I prefer.