The moment my wife Jun and I walked into the space inside Jue Lan Club that went by a cute name Sushi by Bae, we knew there was something quite unusual about the place. Unlike at other sushi counters we had been to, the room was darkly lit with the latest trendy pop music blaring from the speaker, almost like one of those overpriced Asian fusion restaurants in the Meatpacking District. The most unusual scene, however, was the Caucasian woman at the center preparing the omakase meal for her diners on the first time slot of the day at 6 p.m. I had heard of this young woman in her signature bandana, Oona Tempest, making a name for herself in several restaurant publications and blogs after she started learning the craft from the acclaimed sushi master Toshio Oguma at Tanoshi in Upper East Side (still one of the my favorite sushi counters in the city). In a world that is still much reserved only for middle-aged to old Japanese males, Oona’s rise to fame was certainly intriguing. After our dinner at Sushi by Bae, however, I realized that Oona more than backs up her hype with a seriously good omakase meal.
In the midst of super expensive luxury sushi restaurants that have entered the dining scene in the city in recent years, the 15-course omakase option at $100 per person offered by Sushi by Bae looks like a great bargain, especially where you have Oona who was trained in the classical edomae tradition but is not afraid to add a few touches on her own. Her attention to details and freshness of ingredients showed in several standout pieces, starting with the shima aji (Japanese striped jack) that was one of the better ones I’ve had in recent years, or the golden eye snapper that Jun was raving about, with more or less flawless texture that was enhanced with a touch of licorice sea salt that didn’t overpower the fish, or the miso marinated Japanese butterfish that was blow torched to just about the perfect temperature.
Our meal was the first time that Jun and I had encountered this rare species called cherry trout from Hokkaido, and we wish more and more sushi restaurants bring this fish that looks somewhat like a salmon yet has a depth of texture that made us love this piece. Japanese mackerel is one of those fish that is often very difficult to pull off very well because of its fickle flavor; the addition of pickled white kelp on top, however, made a ton of difference in balancing that flavor with a hint of refreshing sensation that made Jun and I appreciate that Oona really knows her fish.
Other dishes were all more or less delicious at varying levels; I wished the chutoro (medium fatty tuna belly) came out with a tad less salt but the texture of the fish was otherwise quite pleasant, as was the otoro (fatty tuna belly) that I asked to add as an extra piece after our regular course. Hokkaido uni could’ve had a bit more layers in its texture, but it was still a very fresh one. The bottom line, though, is that there was no one bad piece, and when you have a simple bowl of quail egg and salmon roe that turns out to be an excellent standout dish thanks to peeled yuzu, you realize that Oona didn’t just become one of those young guns in the New York dining industry just because of her status as a “minority” in the sushi chef world.
The restaurant serves omakase meals on three separate time slots (75 minutes apart) starting at 6 p.m. The counter was fully packed during our meal, so I do suggest booking as much as possible in advance (you have to text a number for a reservation). Throughout our meal, Oona was very pleasant to speak to and answered any questions we had about the individual pieces she served. There is a concise list of cocktail and sake options that you can add to complement your meal. As noted above, the atmosphere at Sushi by Bae can get a little bit chaotic if you’re looking for a quiet sushi dinner in a pristine environment, but it didn’t bother us too much. I don’t know where Oona will end up in her next journey (my guess was that her residence at Jue Lan Club was only temporary), but I look forward to seeing how her already blossoming career evolves. I’m certainly glad that she chose sushi instead of sticking with her art education in making her career choice.
KenScale: 8.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.5/10)
- Creativity: 8.5/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredients: 9.0/10
- Flavor: 8.0/10
- Texture: 9.0/10
- Value: 8.5/10
Address: 49 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011
Telephone: (347) 495-4221