Shion Uino began the New York City portion of his sushi-making career in 2017, in the basement of an apartment building just west of the United Nations. The restaurant he oversaw there, Sushi Amane, has room for no more than eight people at a time, but demand was high from the start.
Before moving to New York, Mr. Uino had worked for more than eight years under Takashi Saito at Sushi Saito, a traditionalist sushi-ya in Tokyo that has attained near-mythic status, in part because of the tenderness of its braised abalone and octopus, and in part because of its policy of accepting reservations only from past customers and their friends. The best-connected hotel concierges in Tokyo throw up their hands when a guest wants to have dinner at Saito. In 2019 the Michelin Guide to Japan delisted Saito, which had held three stars, on the grounds that it was for all intents and purposes not open to the public. (For the same reason, Michelin also dropped Sukiyabashi Jiro.)
Seats at Sushi Amane were easier to come by. Mr. Uino gave the impression of someone who is always trying to duplicate some ideal flavor in his head, and each time I ate at his counter, he seemed to be getting closer. I was struck by his skill at coaxing the featured ingredient on each piece of nigiri to give more of itself. Before I was able to review Amane, though, the pandemic descended and scattered all the pieces on the chessboard of New York dining.
In May, Mr. Uino emerged at 69 Leonard Street in TriBeCa, an eight-seat sushi counter whose previous chef, Derek Wilcox, had decamped for California. Under Mr. Wilcox, when the restaurant’s full name was Shoji at 69 Leonard Street, its strength was the lovely seasonal opening courses that drew on Mr. Wilcox’s training in kaiseki cuisine. Now that Mr. Uino has arrived and the restaurant has been renamed Shion 69 Leonard Street, the meal flows more seamlessly. Mr. Uino seems to have an intimate understanding of each aquatic species that enters his kitchen — its chemistry, its muscle structure — from the first plate of sashimi to the final piece of nigiri.
He does this without theatrics. There is one seating at 6 p.m. and another at 8:30. Shortly before the meal begins, Mr. Uino enters the secluded dining room, greets any return customers sitting across the luminous quartzite counter and spends the next several minutes quietly grating a pale-green shaft of wasabi.
When he has enough, he will set pinches of it on chilled plates for the sashimi course. He often opens with rosy-pink slices of kue, the firm and clean-tasting longtooth grouper, served with an icy chill that accentuates its tight, crisp texture. He may pair this with chewy sections of tsubugai, a Japanese conch, extracted moments before from its trumpetlike shell, or with wild kanpachi belly, the same cut as otoro, which quickly goes from firm to almost melting as you eat it.
This is reveille, a call to sit up and pay attention to the transporting series of appetizers about to appear. Cold dishes alternate with something cooked by Hiroto Ochiai, the sous-chef, who followed Mr. Uino from Sushi Amane. Steamed managatsuo, a firm, lean Japanese butterfish that sits in a shallow bath of ponzu and is topped with an angry-red ball of spicy grated daikon, may be followed by sea urchin. In July, high season for Japanese urchin, Mr. Uino served two varieties from Amakusa, his hometown, including big orange lobes of murasaki uni that seemed to keep unfolding new depths of flavor even after they were gone.
“Those two are very difficult to get,” he said, “but I am from there, so I can get.”
There might be a slab of marinated monkfish liver under green flakes of yuzu zest, or an astonishing slice of octopus poached until its skin is a slick goo barely clinging to a white, circular core that puts up a facade of resistance before melting away.
One chilled appetizer has become a calling card for Mr. Uino: a salad of crab mounded inside the deep bowl of its carapace. Except for a few weeks in late fall when he prefers snow crab, he uses kegani, known in English as hairy crab for the short bristles that make it look like a scrub brush with legs. The crab’s flesh is stirred with the soft, mustard-colored hepatopancreas excavated from its innards. (In a lobster, this bit of anatomy goes by the name tomalley, which sounds less alarming.) Dipped in black vinegar with a liminal dose of ginger, the crab has a fleeting sweetness that is tempting to chase. I usually eat the first few mouthfuls quickly before I remember that what I really want is to make it last.
About an hour into the meal, Mr. Uino will begin to slice fish for nigiri. He will not hurry or act nervous. He looks like somebody getting ready for a battle that he knows he is going to win.
His style of sushi is called Edomae. It emulates the salt-cured, vinegar-marinated sushi of Tokyo in the days before refrigeration. There are few strong flavors at Shion, though. The rice is soft and not overbearingly tart.
When kombu-curing and marination are used, they rarely draw attention to themselves. Everything is calibrated to bring out the inherent flavor of the seafood, most of which Mr. Uino imports from Amakusa with the help of a friend who kills, bleeds and prepares fish using a method called shinkei-jime.
Mr. Uino’s interventions are all but invisible, apart from hairline scores left by his knife. A few deep slashes help otoro — the prized, ultrafatty cut of tuna belly that is the color of milk with a few drops of blood in it — melt as soon as it touches your tongue.
Dozens of precise, shallow incisions tenderize thick white bands of aori ika, the sweet and creamy big-fin reef squid. Just before placing it on your plate, he finishes it with sea salt and a few sour drops of the Japanese citrus fruit sudachi. Look down the counter and you see one head after another rolling back in pleasure.
He is in the zone now. Soon he will carve a deep slit from the stem to the stern of sliced aji, the horse mackerel, then press a dot of minced green onions into the cut. Avid nigiri spotters will recognize this as the mark of a chef whose mentor, or mentor’s mentor, apprenticed under the sushi master Shinji Kanesaka, as Mr. Uino’s old boss, Mr. Saito, did.
Near the end, a steaming plate of simmered sea eels is carried in from the wings. Mr. Uino handles your eel carefully because it is on the verge of falling apart. It won’t, though, until you have lifted your portion to your mouth. Brushed with a thin syrup, it is almost sweet enough to be dessert, but there is another course to come.
The egg sushi called tamago can be airy as a cake or thick as custard; at Shion 69 Leonard it is dense, supremely smooth, glossy, the color of butterscotch, as confounding as a magic trick and as fun to eat as pudding, if you could pick up pudding with your fingers. It is a confection from another world.
Interplanetary transportation doesn’t come cheap, evidently. Shion 69 Leonard Street now charges $420 a person, tip included. Prices at the most elite sushi counters, including Masa, Sushi Noz, Nakaji and Yoshino, are now higher by $100 or more than those at almost all other New York restaurants.
The gulf is so wide that many people who have cultivated an appreciation for the quality of sushi served at Shion will feel that they can’t afford to go there, and some seats at the counter will fall to customers who won’t think twice about the cost but won’t really know what they’re tasting. The city finally has sushi that aspires to stand with the greatest in the world, but eating it has become a rich person’s game.
What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.