It’s a late Friday afternoon at New Haven’s East Rock Market. An early-bird Friday crowd sits outside at picnic tables, sipping beers from East Rock Brewing Company. Dogs are lounging, toddlers are toddling.
I head straight inside, where Rockfish Sushi occupies one long slab of bar in the sparkling indoor food court. The seats can fill up beyond capacity on a Friday night, I’ve heard, and I want to beat the rush.
“We are traditional Japanese sushi. We are old school!” Chef Jason Tay tells me. Everything is “fresh, fresh, fresh,” and internationally sourced. sea bream and bluefish from Japan, salmon from the Faroe Islands. Each simply, lucidly served; the restaurant’s popularity built on high standards and simplicity. The working premise: let the flavors of the fish speak.
I have the place to myself.
I look at the blessedly short menu and ask if the omakase — a pre-fixe course — is too much for one person. “Well,” Katherine, my server, pauses. “Not for me. But I love sushi!”
Timing is key.
Each course arrives at a relaxed, spacious pace, and in a specific order. I ask Jason, “How is the sequence determined?” He replies with a glint in his eye: “I decide.” Then he elaborates: “We put the milder flavors first and then the stronger flavors later. If you ate the strong flavors first, you wouldn’t be able to taste the mild.”
The first course is a small bowl with slabs of Japanese bluefish akami tuna. Akami is lean meat —almost beef-like — but still knee-meltingly tender. It is served with ponzu sauce and diced scallions.
The second begins a series of nigiri: gently hand-molded rice draped with raw fish. The first is Japanese sea bream, a white colored fish with a gorgeous vein of pinkish-maroon. Citrus salt on the top gives a touch of zing and crunch. “This does not need any ponzu sauce,” Katherine tells me. “Or if you want, just a little.” The fish is sweet, light, film-y.
Jason laughs, “We tell people what to do!”
Indeed, throughout the meal, Jason, Katherine, and Alphonso, a sushi chef who has been working with Jason for twenty years, instruct and educate me. As they lean across the bar to place nigiri on my plate, or hand me a roll, they let me know what the fish is, where it comes from, whether there is wasabi already included, how much ponzu to use.
“We tell people not to put ginger on their sushi. It totally ruins the flavor.” Jason says.
“Ginger is for eating between courses, to cleanse your palate.” Katherine adds.
The wasabi is fresh ground, fluffy and mild. I find myself sneaking generous chopstick-dabs of it between courses.
Alphonso places on my plate two salmon nigiri from the Faroe Islands sprinkled with sesame seeds. Watching him mold the sushi rice out of a large hangiri container just behind the counter is like watching a sculptor mold clay. “We don’t overpack the rice so that it’s hard to bite into,” Jason explains. The salmon is creamy, buttery, meltingly elastic, and marbled with fat, like a Venus de Medici.
A family of four takes the corner of the sushi bar. I watch as Jason prepares a special appetizer for them — a plate of translucent thin-sliced fish, arranged into a display of flowers, dashed with ponzu, scallions, and micro-greens.
Next is a Japanese Hamachi, or yellowtail, topped with scallions. Soft and tender, the fish pulls away in your mouth like cotton candy. It is light pink, with a vein of maroon, and a corner detail of white speckle.
The hand rolls are served last. Jason hands me a roll across the counter, a little like getting a popsicle served from an ice cream truck. It is a taste-and-texture palace: the fresh, crunchy seaweed wrap giving way to extra rich morsels of salmon, a bit of rice, a vein of earthy wasabi and a zangy crunch of citrus salt at the very center. I finish with the strongest flavor: a spicy roll, rich toro tuna, microgreens and scallions. A dab of sauce is a blend of Japanese mayonnaise and hot sauce.
Rockfish Sushi opened in the middle of the pandemic, in October 2021. “Then it was all take-out,” Jason remembers. The whole crew was filling to-go boxes as fast as they could make them. Now, of course, it is a popular sit-down spot as well. Plan your visits well — arrive early and hungry — and let the flavors of the fish speak to you.