Soto Voce

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I don't understand why the restaurant Soto doesn't get more buzz than it appears to get. Combining stunningly creative sushi using top-notch ingredients and beautifully composed and delicious hot dishes all at a very reasonable price for a Japanese restaurant would seem to be a recipe for having one's doors smashed in by waiting crowds. Add to that an extensive sake list and a world-renowned chef, one would think a reservation would be impossible. Fortunately for me, it isn't, as I was able to get a reservation for four this past Saturday night at the bar overlooking Chef Kosugi Soto and his two assistants at 8PM via Open Table. That is not to say that the restaurant wasn't busy – it was full.

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This was not my first time at Soto. Little has changed in the year and a half since my last visit. The decor remains understated as does the restaurant itself, easy enough to miss even though it is situated on busy 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village (betw/ W. 4th & Washington Sts.). The menu has not changed much, but it does have quite a few choices and the dishes that are there are with few exceptions simply superb.

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We sat down and asked for an omakase for the four of us. In addition we had sake, choosing Ugo No Tsuki, a dry, fragrant and complex sake from Hiroshima. When selecting the omakase , we were asked about our spending limits and were assured that the cost of the meal would not exceed $150pp.

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It didn't take long for the first dishes to start arriving. The very first was Goma Tofu, black and white sesame tofu, served with wasabi soy sauce and soy foam. The custard-like texture of the dish focused on the flavors of several ingredients and balanced them well with the different qualities of sesame contrasting nicely. This was a delightful introduction.

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The next dish followed rapidly. Subtly flavored the Matsutake Dobin Mushi Soup contained a clear dashi broth with matsutake mushroom, shrimp, fluke, mitsuba, ginko nuts and yuzu. The dobin in the name refers to the clay pot it was cooked and served in.  Sudachi citrus was served on the side to squeeze in as desired. We were instructed to drink the broth first before eating the solid materials left in the dobin. This was satisfying as only soup can be on a cold December night. The sudachi's flavor resembled that of a lemon more than any other citrus in our experience.

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The sushi chef used an unusual knife technique to slice the fluke for the next dish leaving a result similar to what gift-wrappers do with ribbons to get them to curl up. The result was a ribbony, textured sliced fish. The Fluke Ponzu incorporated thinly sliced fluke with chive, ginger shoots and shiso leaf. Unlike the soup, this dish was summery and refreshing with a great balance of citrusy acid, sweetness and texture.

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The fluke was followed by another winner – Scallop Shiso and Fluke Agedashi. This consisted of scallop and fluke wrapped in shiso leaves, deep fried and served in a dashi broth.

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Uni Tempura with Uni Powder was the lone pure miss of the night. This was our first taste of uni, an ingredient for which Chef Soto is particularly renowned. In fact, he presented on uni at this past January's Madrid Fusión. This dish though, changed the uni such that it was unrecognizable. the soft, custardy unctuousness of the ingredient was gone, replaced by something more closely resembling cooked lobster roe. While it was an interesting and unusual take on a great ingredient, I was disappointed
that it was our first uni experience of the night. Fortunately, it would not be the last.

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The next dish brought us right back on track. Hokki Nuta, thinly sliced surf clam with miyoga ginger shoots and sesmaem(?) in sweet miso mustard sauce. The ginger added piquancy and the lime balanced acidity to the sweetness of the clam – another extremely refreshing dish.

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Kampachi Tartare, chopped kampachi amberjack with wasabi tobiko, pine nuts and soy foam, was a delight of textural contrast with the explosive tobiko, flying fish roe flavored with wasabi, crunchy pine nuts and soft kampachi tartare. The soy foam was stiff with a whipped cream-like consistency. While the dish was delicious, one was brought for the four of us to split, taking a page from the Momofuko restaurants. While the prior dishes were all served in individual portions, the next few were up to us to divide. The positive part of this was that it likely allowed us to sample more dishes and still keep the cost reasonable. The negative was that it was somewhat awkward to split the dishes as it was difficult to split them evenly and cleanly. Fortunately, we were all good friends so it was less uncomfortable than it might have been.

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When most people think of fish and seafood at a Japanese restaurant they think of raw fish and seafood. Certainly raw fish has its charms, as had been demonstrated this night in a number of dishes already. No less charming, when done well, is very lightly cooked seafood. The next dish, Minute Steamed Tai, lightly steamed Japanese sea bream with ginger scallion oil was just such an example of lightly cooked fish that was just as lovely as its raw brethren.

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Speaking of raw, the next dish was Wild Snapper Carpaccio, New Zealand wild snapper with aged vinegar, sea salt, sesame oil, ginger shoot and cilantro. Once again, the combination worked very well.

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This was a dish that I was hoping for. Uni Ika Sugornori Zukuri, Catalina sea urchin wrapped in thinly sliced squid with shiso, served with quail egg and tosa soy reduction, was one of the dishes Chef Soto prepared during his demonstration at Madrid Fusion and was one I had been looking forward to ever since. A wonderful combination of flavors and textures and beautifully presented, it did not disappoint. This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening. The only downside was that I didn't have a whole one for myself.

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Two lobster dishes arrived at the same time. Once again they were served to be shared. That was particularly difficult for the first one, Steamed Lobster with Uni Mousse. The dish consisted of lobster and uni mousse wrapped in lotus root and garnished with smoked uni and caviar. Despite having to share, this was another favorite with deep lobster flavor and a smooth finish from the uni mousse. The lotus and cucumber provided textural contrast along with visual interest.

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The second lobster dish, Broiled Lobster with Mango, Portabella, though rich, was also quite delicious with the mango serving to work as a sweet and acidic foil. This proved a little easier to share.

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I had this dish on my prior visit to Soto. At that time, I was not fully aware of the plight of the bluefin tuna and ate this delicious dish with gusto. Now aware of that plight, I was disappointed to have been served this dish, Cyu Toro Tartare  – that is until I discovered that this wasn't bluefin. Chef Soto shares the concerns about bluefin and doesn't serve it. He uses bigeye tuna instead, which happens to get a "best choice" designation from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. I just wish that I knew that before it was served. Had I looked closely at the menu, I would have. Next time, I will enjoy it as I did the first time it was served to me! The dish consisted of chopped bigeye tuna with avocado coulis garnished with caviar and chive and served in a sesame ponzu sauce.

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Though still delicious, this dish, Broiled Langoustine, disappointed the group as much as any other. The langoustine itself was quite tasty. It was served lightly broiled under a shiitake sauce. The shiitake sauce itself was quite delicious too, but together, the shiitake overwhelmed the more delicate New Zealand langoustine. The richness of the sauce didn't help our collective view of the dish, as by this time we were getting quite full. When it comes to something as wonderful as a langoustine, my preference is for simplicity. The most satisfying langoustines I have ever had were those that had been grilled simply as at Ca' Sento in Valencia, Spain.

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A perfectly fried fish is a wonderful thing. This fish, Karei Karaage, was perfectly fried. This fish was a wonderful thing. The crisp Atlantic sole was served with ponzu sauce, but it didn't need anything. This was a spectacular way to end the main part of the meal.

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The fried fish was the end of the main part of the meal, but we weren't quite ready for dessert. Chef Soto serves sushi at the end of his meal. We elected to have three pieces of sushi each, but Chef Soto personally delivered a few extras. Since we had a hard time choosing, he made a platter with a variety of sushi, from which we each selected what most interested us individually. Nothing went to waste.

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Our selection included cyu toro, seared scottish salmon, gruntfish, long fin squid, Maine sea scallop, uni and Taiwanese unagi. This proved a lovely way to finish the dinner.

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We finished with tea made from toasted rice and a variety of Japanese mochi ice creams. The final bill including two bottles of good sake, tax and generous tip averaged $170pp, well below the maximum that we had agreed to.

Kosugi Soto has a distinctive voice in the kitchen. His creativity and talent are enormous as are his wife's. While not inexpensive, Soto represents good value amongst
top Japanese restaurants in NYC. That it remains relatively under the radar surprises me. This is a chef and a restaurant that we should be hearing much more about.

For these and more photos of our meal at Soto:


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One Response to Soto Voce

  1. Trig says:

    Next time you visit Barcelona, try eating at Koy Shunka. Also somewhere under the radar that deserves far more recognition than it has achieved. The best restaurants in Japan are now getting the accolades they deserve, but great Japanese restaurants elsewhere are still being ignored.

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