Unbelievably sad over a no-longer anniversary (on July 3) and sensing that I should nonetheless celebrate a still-active one (on July 4... call it my own personal Independence Day), it seemed like I had two perfect excuses for treating myself to Soto last night. And so treat myself I did.
In case you don't know the backstory: Soto is run by sushi chef Sotohiro Kosugi (his wife Maho is in charge of the kitchen), who has made a name for himself in raw-fish circles both for his prickly demeanor and for his pristine, flown-in-from-Japan creations, served for eleven years out of an Atlanta strip mall. This spring he brought his show up to the big city, and though his new address—a particularly unlovely stretch of lower Sixth Avenue—isn't much of an aesthetic upgrade, there's no question that Soto has become an instant contender for best sushi in town.
First, let me say that there was no evidence of Kosugi's legendary grumpiness last night. Really, he couldn't have been more smiley and helpful throughout my entire 90-minute meal, which I spent seated right in front of him at the sushi bar. Second, don't let Soto's dreary location discourage you, either. This is a very pretty restaurant inside, all light wood and dark slate; simple, cleanly lit, and designed by Hiro Tsuruta, who also did Momofuku and ChikaLicious.
Anyway, the food. I started with two from the kitchen, beginning with a sort of mini gazebo's-worth of the tastiest tempura I've had in years. The generous sampling was lively and light, wonderfully crispy and full-flavored, and included a pair of perfectly-cooked white shrimp (superb when splashed with lemon and dipped in sea salt) as well as pieces of kabocha (a Japanese squash, similar to butternut), asparagus, renkon (those wagon-wheel-looking lotus roots), a shiso leaf, and a fat shitake mushroom. This was excellent. Then came the Chawan Mushi, which was a cup of rich egg custard studded with bits of shitake, chicken, an unfortunately bland shrimp, and two delightful ginko nuts. Although I've never had this "traditional" dish before, I feel like it shouldn't have been as oily as mine was toward the bottom... as if the mixture had separated. But the firmer top half was unusual and delicious.
Then Kosugi unleashed his sushi deluge upon me. I ordered the 12-piece Sushi Nigiri Omakase, wound up getting 14 pieces in all, delivered one- or two-at-a-time, and each was a singular slice of raw fish heaven. You don't get any soy sauce or wasabi at Soto, as each piece arrives seasoned as the chef would have you eat it. And believe me, he knows what he's doing. My feast included incredible slices of a buttery Toro; an explosive Madai, or Japanese Sea Bream; a sweet raw Shiro Ebi; a brilliant Sake Yakishime, or scotch salmon, seared exactly right; an orgasmic Uni; a nicely-gamey Aji (horse mackerel); a melty Hamachi and a firm Mirugai (live giant clam); and a spectacular Hotate, or Japanese scallop. Every bite made me want to close my eyes and enjoy a small moment of private ecstasy.
Soto is located on Sixth Avenue between West 4th and Washington Place. I made a same-day reservation for 6:00, and when I left at 7:30 there were plenty of empty tables and seats at the bar, but by then the whole city had pretty much cleared out for the holiday.