New York City’s sushi scene has increasingly seen the appearance of non-Japanese chefs that have wanted to try something different from the elder masters born, raised and trained in Japan for a long time before coming over to showcase their talent and craftsmanship to New Yorkers. From looking at the Vietnamese chef Don Pham, who recently worked at another sushi restaurant (O Ya) run by a non-Japanese Bostonian, in action at the counter, I can tell that he’s not holding back at all to display his creativity in the art of sushi and sashimi omakase. My wife Jun, after our meal, gave a very high score to Sushi Ishikawa for thinking outside the box and sending us a lot of novel dishes that she hadn’t seen after numerous trips to other sushi restaurants. I agree that Ishikawa is definitely onto something, but also think the restaurant could’ve done better.
When Jun and I sat down and were ready to get our first bite of our 15-course omakase menu (at $125 per person; there is also a 12-course option for $85 per person and a 16-course option for $155 per person), we didn’t expect to see a blow torched sea perch. While it was very good, we started to become somewhat puzzled that chef Pham kept on blow torching the other pieces that followed. One other thing we noticed is that each nigiri used somewhat strong flavor (although by no means too salty (other than the scallop that came after the sea perch) or sweet (other than the Tasmanian ocean trout that came later)) thanks to the liberal use of seasoning and ingredients like pepper, garlic and even truffle.
Could these be signs that the ingredients weren’t as fresh as they should’ve been, so the chef was resorting to gimmicks to hide such deficiencies? When it comes to sushi, I tend to prefer minimalistic presentation and judicious use of seasoning to truly enjoy the fresh texture of each seafood I put into my mouth, so it took me a bit of time to adjust to the unique style, and the texture of each seafood didn’t strike me as the freshest it could be in the ultracompetitive sushi standard of New York City. Still, I appreciated some memorable pieces like striped jack that displayed a spicy kick that I never experienced at a sushi restaurant before, or a beltfish tempura piece that was gently fried to near perfection.
After a series of nigiris came different sashimi-oriented dishes and that’s where chef Pham’s ingenuity really starts to shine in presentation. I see a stack of kanpachi, uni and monkfish liver that just looks too good to be true (although the uni could’ve been more vibrant in texture), or the absolutely magnificent combination of Hokkaido delicacies of uni, squid and scallop placed on uni miso, or the pure decadence in the form of different tunas (o toro and chu toro) with caviar on top as an icing on the cake. While I have seen these ingredients before, I didn’t see a person’s imagination to somehow have them work together into coherent dishes until my visit to Ishikawa, and for that chef Pham deserves a ton of credit. Would he have been able to source the freshest ingredients out there instead of the somewhat mixed ones that we had encountered if he had more liberty to raise the price of his omakase options to the level that other high-end sushi restaurants put out there? While savoring an excellent hand roll with toro, uni and ikura, I couldn’t help pondering that question.
I didn’t have much trouble getting a reservation on a Friday evening at the sushi counter, but given the dearth of excellent sushi restaurants in Upper East Side, Ishikawa seems to have quickly become a neighborhood favorite, so I would suggest always booking in advance. Chef Pham was very friendly during our dinner, and shared his life history of how he had become a sushi chef thanks to his father. There are some excellent sake options that you can order by the bottle, carafe or glass depending on how much you want to imbibe to complement your meal. Ishikawa is by no means perfect, but it was nice to see a young chef with a distinct vision to show how a modern twist to the art of sushi can challenge our senses and lead us to have overall a delicious meal.
KenScale: 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10)
- Creativity: 8.75/10
- Execution: 8.25/10
- Ingredients: 7.5/10
- Flavor: 8.25/10
- Texture: 8.0/10
- Value: 8.0/10
Address: 419 East 74th Street, New York, NY, 10021
Telephone: (212) 651-7292