Ichimura at Brushstroke: Precision, Brilliance and Transcendence

January 14, 2012

For a quick recap of the meal, check out the slide show at the bottom of the post. 

Symbolic lighting, no?

Rating: ◊◊◊◊◊

Once in a while, something will come along and knock the wind right out of you. Whether it's a person, a place or an experience, it touches you so intensely that you find yourself irrevocably altered and deeply humbled by its arrival.

I had such an experience when I met Eiji Ichimura.

A quiet man with nimble hands and warm smile, Ichimura-san has spent the last 42 years perfecting his craft: traditional edo-mae sushi. Every night, he artfully transports 16 lucky guests to an ethereal world filled with delicate slices of sashimi and glistening nigiri. In his hands, each ingredient is simplified down to its purest form, creating the most incomprehensible and mystifying depths of flavor.

Ichimura-san's 8-seat sushi bar is hidden within David Bouley's Tribeca "kaiseki" house, Brushstroke. To honor this symbiotic relationship, our omakase began with a chawanmushi with truffle ankake sauce from the main kitchen.

Succulent, but lacking in finesse.  
Topped with golden and dungeness crab, the savory custard had a pleasant mouth feel that alternated between firm crab meat and silken egg. Yet, the Brushstroke dish was generally unimpressive. Its flavors proved it to be a sore attempt at reconciling Japanese cooking methods with expensive Western ingredients. The chives and truffle were particularly harsh and overwhelming.

Despite a somewhat unsuccessful first course, I knew my luck was about to change when a train of amuse bouches came to me from Ichimura-san's kitchen.

From right to left: Ankimo (monkfish liver) cooked in sake; Crab with miso; Marinated scallop; Maitake mushrooms with clam; Tako (octopus); Pressed kazunoko (herring roe); and Braised toro (fatty tuna).
Eaten in succession, these fleeting bites captured a spectrum of subtle flavors and unusual textures. From the pillowy, soft ankimo to the spongy kazunoko, I was surprised and delighted by each component. The ankimo was particularly light and clean, almost like an aerated foie gras that renounced its earthy flavors for a briny taste of the sea. I also found the tako quite enjoyable. Unbelievably tender, the sliver of octopus provided a sweetness that wonderfully contrasted the fattiness of other ingredients.

In addition to the amuses, a small cup of uni accompanied the set. Upon closer examination, I found the uni to be within a clear liquid, which Ichimura-san later indicated was fresh sea water. He encouraged us to fish the uni out of its marinade and take it in one bite.

It was remarkable. Simply paired with sea water, the uni is masterfully showcased in its own habitat. The freshness of the product was undeniable - the sweetness of the roe bounced onto my tongue with an intensity that I could have never expected.

After tasting the uni, I knew Ichimura-san was poised to give me the meal of a life time. Using a square black plate, he slowly began to fill its surface area with the second arc of our omakase: sashimi.

Watching a shokunin (master artisan) in the throes of his craft is truly inspiring. Each slice of fish was produced with such concentrated precision, with pure muscle memory honed from 4 decades of dedication. The succession of sashimi was presented to us as we ate - once a spot on the plate was cleared, Ichimura-san would fill it again with a new type of fish.

So much for pink pickled ginger... 
Our condiments were also quite distinct. We were encouraged to eat our fish with myoga shoots (a type of ginger), wakame (seaweed), sliced shiso leaf, and a gorgeous small pile of fresh grated wasabi. As for salt, two types were provided for experimenting: a traditional sea salt gathered from the coast of Japan and soy sauce.

Needless to say, the fish was wonderful. Each piece of fish was perfected aged and exuded a nutty quality that exemplified the very foundations of umami. Also as we ate, the translucent, lighter slices would be replaced by fish in increasing fattiness. I found this technique quite brilliant, as it builds the subtle flavor of the overall progression without ruining the diner's palate.

For me, there were 3 standouts from my sampling of 8 fish.

Our first round of sashimi. Notice the engawa tucked underneath the hirame on the lower left. The katsuo is on the upper left. 

First, I loved the engawa, the fin muscle of fluke. Springy in texture, the engawa had the body of fresh squid with a more focused sweetness than hirame (regular fluke). The bite was an excellent example that sometimes the delicacy lies in the less expensive cuts.

I also loved the katsuo (bonito/skipjack tuna). I was excited to try fresh katsuo because it's most often consumed in dried form as bonito flakes or in dashi (Japanese stock). Eaten with sea salt and wakame, the katsuo was incredibly fragrant and smooth. Although it was raw, the katsuo still retained hints of smoky, dashi flavor.

Marbling. Marbling! MARBLING! 
Finally, the o-toro (fattiest cut of tuna) took me by surprise. I've had o-toro before but found the richness very strong and overwhelming. And as expected the fish was extremely rich and buttery - so much so that I had trouble finishing it. However as the tender meat slowly dissipated on my tongue, the mellow, unctuous flavor eventually won me over.

At this point I was already feeling full, but Ichimura-san was not done. Eschewing his offer for more sashimi, we finally arrived at the finale: nigirizushi.

Two types of paper thin o-toro?! I can't even comprehend how he sliced it so thin. 
What followed can only be described as an exercise in utter pleasure. From Ichimura-san's skillful hands the nigiri came one-by-one, as satin sheets of razor thin fish were expertly pressed onto mounds of the most delicious rice. The sushi vinegar brought a delicate balance to the mild rice, allowing each glistening, perfectly cooked grain to play an aromatic role in the supple texture of each nigiri. With each bite, the combination of soy, wasabi, fish and rice engulfed my senses and flooded my taste buds.

Like a jewel. 
Among the fish featured with rice, the shima aji (horse mackerel) and the uni were absolutely mind blowing. Covered in a gorgeous patina of soy sauce, the shima aji had an amazingly toothsome texture and a savoriness that can only be found in species from the mackerel family. In addition, the slight fishiness from the shiny skin added complexity to its overall flavor, making it much more interesting (and delicious) to eat than other subtler fishes.

A panty-dropper if I've ever seen one...
But even the shima aji cannot compare to the utter synapse-exploding experience of eating Ichimura-san's uni nigiri. Composed solely of fresh wasabi and uni draped precariously over a small dab of rice, the simple bite was incredibly lush. The fragile roe yielded tenderly to reveal a creaminess unlike anything I've ever had. In fact, the uni was so delicious that A. and I each requested a second piece at the very end of our meal.

After it was all over, when the dishes were cleared and we were each left with only a hot cup of hoji cha, A. and I could do nothing but stare at each other, dumbfounded by the amazing meal we had. Ichimura at Brushstroke was nothing short of a revelation. In the artful execution of simple but deeply flavorful sushi, I could see the dedication and hard work of Ichimura-san, his kitchen crew and an entire history of masters in their quest to perfect this incredible cuisine.

Of course, this glowing review does come with a warning: I definitely advise interested diners to have some previous experience with eating traditional sushi. Many of the fish can be quite subtle to someone who hasn't developed a basic background in this type of food. It may be more worthwhile to try some less formal venues before building your way up to Ichimura at Brushstroke. 

Not for the faint of heart.
Also, the omakase is not for diners with weak stomachs. You may think I'm referring to exoticism of the ingredients but truthfully, eating so much raw protein can be extremely hard on your digestive system. I recommend eating lightly and staying in good health before subjecting your body to this potent meal.

Nevertheless, I feel my epicurean experience with Ichimura-san was both exquisite and enlightening. I learned and tasted more in the way of ingredients, technique and history than I would ever expected from a 2 hour meal. I can't wait to return and explore more of the intricate world of sushi, with Ichimura-san guiding the way.

Slide Show (Click the “i” for More Info on the Pictures):

Ichimura at Brushstroke
30 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10013

Ichimura at Brushstroke: Precision, Brilliance and Transcendence

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Monday, January 14, 2013

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