Superior sushi and more at Sea Bright’s Yumi
Teresa Politano | The Star-Ledger By
1120 Ocean Ave.
★ ★ ★ ½
THE VIBE: Welcoming but crisp modern décor, with coveted seats to watch the expertise at the sushi bar
STANDOUT DISHES: Miso black cod, uni toro roll, beef teriyaki, hijiki salad, squid salad, Sandy Hook roll, banana pouch
AMID THE NATIONAL CLAMOR and gushing over sea urchin remains a hard truth. Sea urchin intimidates. In many presentations, it is a dare, a glistening golden challenge — even if you love its intensity. You can tire of it, and then become embarrassed by that, because sea urchin is such a mysterious delicacy. Like caviar, like truffles, it’s something you’re supposed to love.
Sea urchin atop tuna belly in a specialty roll at Yumi shows off the creative skills of a chef who knew sea urchin long before it became a must-have addition to nearly every forward-thinking restaurant in Manhattan. This uni toro roll ($24) boasts a less-is-more Japanese aesthetic — few ingredients, each stellar, matched for creative tension. In this roll (an evening special), you taste first, in the tuna belly, the deep richness of the ocean, followed then by the musky creaminess of the sea urchin, which lingers, and still lingers, impishly extending the flavor of this little piece of sushi into a dreamy pocket of an experience at the end.
Like caviar, like truffles, sea urchin is best in the hands of someone who knows precisely how to use it.
Chef Shuenn Yang prefers his sea urchin from either Japan or Santa Barbara, California, entirely different in taste but both high quality. The secret to his uni toro roll is in a dab of creamy, handmade sauce on top, which he then torches for just a second (or maybe less), resulting in a more sensuous texture. Some guests tell him it’s the best thing they’ve eaten.
Quality and freshness ought to be mentioned; the sea urchin follows suit to the standards applied elsewhere at Yumi. The seafood is superior — each piece bright, vividly colored, with spirit remaining. Add to that an astonishingly comprehensive, come-one, come-all menu and a friendly atmosphere, and Yumi easily is a neighborhood favorite, with Saturdays lively and boisterous, even amid bitter, off-season winds.
Locals who lamented its loss to Hurricane Sandy were happy to celebrate its return months later.
Advice: Question the staff. Politeness will prevent them from announcing favorite dishes, as though they were choosing among children, but watch for smiles. A wide one, which also prompts a sparkling of the eyes, may lead you to the miso black cod ($16). And the miso black cod, fat and sweet, opaque and as mysterious as the moon, is the most gloriously glamorous piece of fish you’ve had in your life. Unquestionably. No lie. Like comparing Secretariat to other thoroughbreds.
Classic dishes also have flair. The cashew-crusted prawns ($15) are crisp and light — hot, hot, hot from the fryer. The beef teriyaki ($11) is less about the teriyaki and more about the beef, which is not a comment about the portion size (this is a delicate appetizer), but about emphasis. No need for teriyaki to overwhelm this gently tender beef.
Hijiki salad ($8) is a work of art, with delightfully crisp black seaweed (this seaweed also comes with the black cod). Another salad features grilled squid ($10), which is expertly done, tender with a welcome tang. And grilled duck breast ($26), tender and crisped, shows off the chef’s skills in an entirely different arena.
The specialty rolls follow the aforementioned philosophy, top-notch ingredients balanced well against each other. The Sandy Hook roll ($16) features spicy tuna and lobster salad in white seaweed, with wasabi-pepper sauce. The wasabi is just enough; best to steer clear of the accompanying sauces, which, though pretty on the plate, were too-sweet distractions. The volcano roll ($13), with crabstick, cucumber, avocado and spicy tuna, elicited the same reaction: no cloying sauces necessary. Why mar such obvious freshness and skill?
Skip the tuna pizza ($16), too. It’s not, as you may have heard, the stuff of dreams, but rather a concession to the flat American palate and, frankly, an almost profane one, in that it takes gorgeous pieces of brilliantly fresh tuna and uses them to decorate, along with squiggles of various colorful sauces, a square of flat bread. This is child’s play, with expensive ingredients. You will cringe if this tuna is wasted, but you will become more furious with each bite.
Ramen soup ($15) is another story entirely. Forget David Chang and his declaration earlier this year that ramen soup is dead, a been-there, done-that idea so commonplace as to become bland and nearly petty. The pork-belly ramen soup at Yumi is transcendent, its broth a several-day process that involves simmering chicken bones, pork bones and vegetables to perfection, a broth that’s remarkably flirty yet also serious, which is then plunked full of pork belly and squiggly ramen noodles fresh from Japan. Yang spent months on the recipe, studying ramen secrets on the streets of Tokyo, combining techniques from Taiwan, seeking the most conducive noodle. You’ll want to savor this soup forever and devour it immediately, whether or not you notice the meticulous expertise behind it.
The bao ($10) is another study in perfection, the steamed white bun handcrafted in Chinatown, the braised pork belly earthy and impossibly tender and then gilded with a mixture of spices, which include the lilt of orange peel and cinnamon. (Another example of attention to detail: Yang uses Colorado pork, then rolls the pork belly and ties it into rounds before he braises it, to evenly match the fatty parts with the more lean parts, so you don’t get an overwhelming bite of either.)
Should you be weary, this combination — Yumi’s ramen soup and pork-belly
bao — is the cure.
Desserts are clever; a tempura cheesecake ($8) is a surprisingly delightful cultural pairing, the banana and chocolate pouch wrapped in rice paper ($8) is a seductive gift and the breakaway favorite (even among banana haters), and decadence is the only complaint to make about the molten chocolate cake ($8).
After Sandy, Yang and co-owner Bowie Kok were determined to rebuild in the same spot, no matter the risk. (They hope one day to elevate the property.)
“Sea Bright is home,” Kok says, and the community is supportive.
Yang shares the story of one customer, who, in surveying the damage after the storm, asked if she could help: “I could write a check.”