The Early Word: Yuba
"Yuba" is the Japanese word for "tofu skin," which is the thin layer of film that occurs when making tofu as the curding vat of soy milk cools down. While working at Masa, chefs George Ruan and Jack Wei fell in love with the yuba that was flown in daily from Japan, and so they named their new restaurant in the East Village in its honor. We recently stopped by for lunch to check out the restaurant.
The namesake food is available in several dishes, including in sushi rolls and with uni, but we opted for the grilled version (pictured above, and which was really also fried), which was drizzled with sweet miso and kinome (leaves from the Sichuan pepper tree). The yuba sticks had a nice crunch to them and were sort of like an upscale Asian bar snack.
Less successful were steamed butternut squash dumplings, despite their vibrant color. The filling was all puree, and we couldn't help but be reminded of baby food. The dumplings also came without any sort of dipping sauce, so each mouthful was just a big burst of oozing butternut. They also stuck to the bottom of the steamer, making them quite messy.
Each of our dishes came with miso soup, which was quite nice. The tofu was fresh and the flavors were well-balanced. There's not a whole lot one can say about miso soup that hasn't been said before, but this version was perfectly enjoyable, especially on a wintery day.
The lunch sushi selection came with several pieces of sushi and a maki roll. The sushi included a fairly standard selection of tuna, salmon, shrimp, and yellowtail. Among the maki choices, we opted for the spicy-tuna roll (we know, not very traditional, but we were in the mood). The fish was super-fresh and excellently prepared, though $18 for four pieces of sushi and six pieces of maki isn't necessarily cheap. But sushi is one of those things for which price usually equates to quality. Or so you hope.
The surprise highlight of the meal, however, was the kara-age, or Japanese-style fried chicken bites. The leg meat was exceptionally juicy while the batter was crisp, with a faint sprinkling of lemon juice adding just enough acid to make everything balanced. Seriously, this stuff is addictive.
The restaurant was empty when we visited, perhaps because it's on an odd stretch of 9th Street, located between Third and Fourth avenues. The dining room is very zen (always a good adjective for sparsely decorated spaces painted in shades of gray), if a bit boring. All in all, Yuba is a worthwhile spot, though a filling lunch for two people ended up being $58 after tax and tip. So it's not really an everyday-lunch-spot kind of place. The lunch menu is far less extensive than the dinner menu, which features more fusiony dishes like risotto style uni rice (with the optional addition of white truffles), lobster tail in dashi, and duck and foie gras in a steamed bun. We'd definitely come back to sample some of the more elaborate dishes or to try some of the other sushi options. We would have liked a bit more ambiance, though, so it probably won't supplant our go-to Japanese restaurants. Is Yuba the new Masa? Well, we've actually never been, so we can't answer that. If we had to guess we'd say no, but Yuba is definitely a welcome step above the corner sushi joint. It's just too bad there are so many corner sushi joints near Yuba.
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