Hideo Nakamura is a Japanese writer. He’s contributed numerous articles to Japanese papers and internet publications. He has also produced and directed documentary films on Japanese and American culture. He’s lived in New York City for 32 years.
The insatiable appetite and curiosity of immigrants from more than two-hundred countries who come to the city in search of wealth, fame and happiness has made New York City, without a doubt, the world’s best foodie town. Each day and night, more than 25,000 restaurants compete for your patronage.
The restaurant industry is a major part of New York City’s world-class culture, along with the big league baseball teams, Broadway musicals, and masterpieces at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Today, I would like to share with you the story of TAKEDA, a sushi restaurant on the Upper West Side.
TAKEDA launched at the end of 2019 with high hopes, but it faced two years of hardship due to the pandemic. Today, it’s considered one of the most difficult restaurants in the city to get a reservation and is the object of people’s admiration.
I have visited the restaurant many times since its opening four years ago. So I have been smacking my lips over their signature sushi kaiseki “omakase” course. I have written about its impeccable taste and presentation many times in Japanese media.
Yukihiro Takeda, owner/chef of TAKEDA, is originally from Osaka. Since his youth, he has spent more than 30 years mastering all aspects of Japanese cuisine – including simmered dishes, grilled dishes, sashimi and steamed dishes – in an effort to master the essence of “Washoku,” or the Japanese cuisine. On top of that, he’s perfected the art of sushi through an extensive career as a sushi chef both in Japan and New York.
I must mention that Osaka City is one of the most “gourmand” cities in Japan, and all of its citizens share the philosophy of “kuidaore,” which means that if they come across a good dish, they will eat it even if it costs them all their money. Dining is more important than work, and food is never out of the conversation for the people of Osaka.
It’s typical for Osakans to talk about food with great passion … and at a high volume. Mr. Takeda, on the other hand, is a taciturn Osakan with a great tongue but few words, and in a small open kitchen surrounded on three sides by an eight-seat counter, he quietly prepares his meal. The entire cooking process unfolds before the guest’s eyes. The star of the show is Mr. Takeda, and although he doesn’t say much, his knife work and precise movements make diners sigh in admiration.
One might argue that it’s common practice at any sushi bar to have sushi made in front of guests. “Our cuisine is more than just sushi,” says Satomi Tanaka, the chef’s managing partner. “The course changes every day. Before the nigiri-sushi you are about to eat, you will enjoy an appetizer that makes full use of the freshest seafood. After the sushi parade, we create a change of flavor with steamed dishes and bowls.” The small bowls that subtly incorporate fruits and Western vegetables are a bit of a surprise, but the flavors ultimately leave you nodding your head in admiration. It’s like the feeling a baseball player gets when he is shaken by an unexpected curve ball.
Located in a relatively busy restaurant district on Amsterdam Avenue, TAKEDA has an unassuming exterior, as if it does not want to be noticed. The interior is as understated as the exterior, with brick walls and a white wooden counter.
Sen No Rikyu(1522-91), who perfected the tea ceremony in the 16th century during the Sengoku and Azuchi-Momoyama periods, defined its principles as “four rules and seven regulations.” The four basic rules of the tea ceremony are (1) harmony of mind, (2) mutual respect, (3) purity of heart, and (4) an unperturbed mind. These four principles match perfectly with the atmosphere of TAKEDA.
The beautiful and delicious food is carefully savored in the slow flow of time. You might get to try a fish you have never seen before, and some of the small dishes may be exotic. It is a one-on-one relationship between the diner and the dish. When one confronts a dish with the eyes, the nose and the tongue, one’s own mind comes to appear. So it’s mindfulness you get at TAKEDA. I would call it a temple of sushi; a true meditative place.
The other day, I experienced omakase at TAKEDA for the first time in half a year. The space was as tranquil as ever. The light jazz music playing in the background stirred my heart more and more.
The “appetizer” was salmon with dill oil. The orange dressing gently coats the salmon, which has just come out of the northern sea. The scent of the ocean and citrus fruits create an unexpected chemistry.
Next is kampachi or Amber Jack sashimi. The elegant plum sauce is a light accent. As with the other items, the fish comes directly from the Toyosu market in Tokyo. The crunchiness is outstanding.
The next dish, a bowl of soup, is very elaborate: steamed silver cod topped with zucchini slices and steamed lotus dumplings, a local delicacy of Kanazawa. The accompanying red bell pepper’s light bitter taste contrasts nicely with the dumplings.
Then, the “first half” of the nigiri-sushi sequence begins. By the way, all sushi at this restaurant is served by hand, one by one, by Mr. Takeda. The only seasoning is the boiled-down soy sauce prepared by the chef, and customers are basically not allowed to add soy sauce from a small plate.
The sushi lineup that day included Nodoguro (black seabass) from Tsushima, Nagasaki, Button Shrimp from Hokkaido (the rice grips are intentionally softened to enhance their texture), and salmon roe (a type of salmon roe called Sujiko, which is also from Hokkaido, and is at its best when it is out of season). Following that was Kinmedai or Golden Eye Snapper (a non-migratory type of local Kinmedai called Jikinme) from the port of Choshi, Chiba, and the sushi section concluded with the renowned eel from Hamamatsu.
After being bombarded with so much sushi, it was tempting to turn in a different direction. Perhaps sensing my mood, grilled sea bass appeared. I was relieved to see the harmony of the autumn taste of shiitake mushrooms and light sea bass.
Soon after, the tuna, which had been aged for six weeks, was served. The taste of fermentation, almost like being marinated in miso, was quite an acquired taste, but it was a pleasant surprise. The next dish that shook our palates to the core was Matsugasa-age (fried sweet sea bream). A very Japanese dish is given a Western touch thanks to the balsamic vinegar, mashed potatoes, corn and tomatoes that accompany it. Westerners may feel relieved here.
Just when you thought you had been steered in the direction of the Western style with all your might, the second half of the nigiri-sushi sequence begins. Starting with sea urchin from Hokkaido and followed by horse mackerel (seared) from Oita, sea bream and striped horse mackerel, it all comes to a close with snow crab soup.
The kaleidoscopic of dishes is quite filling, but the finale is a hand roll of Negitoro and dried bonito flakes, an elegant roll handed to me by Chef Takeda, and I am deeply moved to think that this is the end of the meal. The final dish of the day was the Matcha Mousse with Brown Sugar Sauce. If you still have room in your stomach, you can order additional dishes after this.
Takeda’s dishes have always been beyond my expectation, representing the gold standard of sushi and at the same time, something more.