In a nutshell: Feast on expertly-crafted, hand-dressed pieces of sushi at this authentic sushi bar “speakeasy” in Tribeca.
Tucked away in the basement of Tribeca’s Greenwich Grill, a cozy sushi den known as Sushi Azabu operates 7 nights a week, serving traditional edomae sushi alongside small Japanese dishes. The intimate space with a bamboo ceiling and pebbled flooring houses a 9-seat chef’s counter and 3 booth tables, so reservations are a must.
After checking in at the front desk, our arrival was surreptitiously radioed into a headset and we were invited to wait at the swanky bar next to the hostess’ desk. Some minutes later we were led to the back of the restaurant and down a narrow flight of stairs, coming face-to-face with the spotlighted sushi bar. A chorus of “Irashaimase!” greeted us, along with menus and warm moist towels to cleanse our hands.
We initiated our dinner with Bakudan-Natto, something not often found in stateside Japanese restaurants. Bakudan translates to “bomb,” and this starting dish was quite the explosion of flavors. Composed of natto (fermented soy beans), chopped sashimi, mountain potato, and sushi rice, the concoction was topped with a raw quail egg to be stirred in at the last moment. The best way to eat the mixture is to lay a strip of nori on top of the natto, then use a pair of chopsticks to pinch out a bite-sized natto-maki. A new experience for me for sure.
Both my companion and I selected the Koi course for $35.00, composed of a starter, ten pieces of nigiri, and miso soup. The tasting trip began with thin slices of marinated lotus root, crisp with a savory punch.
To understand how wonderful the sushi is here, three factors elevate the nigiri to a new level. First, a no-brainer: the fish is fresh. 70-80% of the fish served is imported 4 times a week directly from Japan to ensure optimal quality.
Second, the rice was positively perfect, just moist enough and slightly warm. Azabu’s unique blend of sushi rice is also imported directly from Japan, using the previous year’s Komai harvest to avoid the overly-high water content associated with fresh harvests of rice.
Third, the sushi chefs strive to deliver the perfect piece of nigiri by not only shaping and cutting the delicate mounds of rice and fish, but also personally lacquering each piece with just the right amount of soy sauce and wasabi for the ideal flavor balance– there is no need to add any yourself. The house-made soy sauce is a sweetened and reduced Nikiri soy sauce infused overnight with mirin, kelp, and dried bonito shavings, and the wasabi has the sharp bite of fresh horseradish. This great attention to detail is a testament to the care and authenticity that Sushi Azabu aims to embody.
The sushi sampling began with a piece of red snapper, clean-tasting with a delicate aroma and mild flavor.
The Salmon was rich with a semi-soft texture, its strong flavor reminiscent of the waters from whence it came.
Tuna Akami is fairly lean as it is sliced from the sides of a bluefin tuna (compared to toro, chutoro, and otoro, which come from the tuna’s belly). Tender with a firm texture, its deep red hue glistened in the light before vanishing into the dark depths of our stomachs.
The shrimp had a pleasant bite to it with a relatively neutral flavor enhanced by the accoutrements the sushi chefs applied to the piece. Shrimp nigiri served at other places, with its often rubbery texture and bland taste, pales in comparison to Azabu’s version.
Lower in oil content and with a slightly softer flesh, the Amberjack had a delicate taste.
The King Salmon (also known as Chinook Salmon) was beautifully marbled, even more meltingly tender than the first piece of salmon.
The fluke had a firmer texture than other pieces. Soy sauce and wasabi brought out its natural flavor.
Piece number two of Tuna Akami was just as succulent as the first.
Nutty and sweet, the scallop was topped with an ever-so-light sprinkling of sea salt to evoke images of the crashing waves of its origins.
The Grilled Salmon was one of my favorite pieces of the night. Whipping out a blowtorch, our chef deftly seared two rectangles of salmon before our eyes and immediately placed the pieces before us. It had the same melt-in-your-mouth tenderness as the King Salmon with an added smoky hint from the kiss of flames.
An expertly-crafted pyramid of sweet omelette was wrapped just so with a ribbon of seaweed. The faintest hint of sweetness added depth to a normally savory concoction.
As our bellies became as swollen as pieces of otoro, the sushi chef attending to us kindly offered us a a bonus piece– any piece we wanted on the house. As an eel fanatic, I immediately knew what I wanted. Served warm, the freshwater eel was meaty and tender. The barest touch of eel sauce, fortunately not cloyingly sweet like those found at other restaurants, drew out the eel’s flavor. A blooming flower of ginger was nestled on the side.
A simple yet satisfying (and thankfully not too salty!) cup of miso soup ended our meal.
This unassuming sushi bar with no frills and no surprises is a lovely place to while away the evening with a dear friend or an intimate party.
428 Greenwich Street
New York, NY