Blue Ribbon Pays an Enduring Tribute to Sushi Icon Toshi Ueki
Situated on a quiet Greenwich Village street in New York City is Ueki, a new, intimate 12-seat omakase dining experience created by Chefs Bruce and Eric Bromberg, founders of Blue Ribbon Restaurants, and their team. Paying a fitting homage to their late partner and Blue Ribbon Sushi co-founder Master Sushi Chef Toshi Ueki, his new namesake restaurant was designed and built by former colleagues of his who brought their unique and artful design perspective to create the simple yet elegant space. Handmade Japanese fabrics, Shibori, and meticulously dark stained oak wood, Shou Sugi Ban, create an ambience steeped in old world craftsmanship and evoke a distinct sense of balance and harmony.
Deeply rooted in Japanese tradition and the purity of the ingredient, the cuisine at Ueki is perfectly suited for the chef-to-patron experience. The team guides guests through a transportive, unforgettable culinary journey, from palette-enticing appetizers to edomae-style nigiri and temakki, while utilizing the freshest, most pristine ingredients from around the world.
The meal is complemented by a distinct list of over 80 types of sake, wine, beer, and spirits to complete the experience, all personally selected by the knowledgeable Ueki team.
How Chefs Bruce and Eric Bromberg Met Sushi Chef Toshi Ueki
Along with the Brombergs, Chef Toshi Ueki was the beloved co-founder of Blue Ribbon Sushi, which started as “a tiny little hole in the wall joint” in New York’s SoHo in 1995, and its iterations have since spread to Las Vegas, Miami, Los Angeles, and Boston over the years to become one of the most revered Japanese restaurant concepts in the country.
So how did two brothers from New Jersey – owners of a successful brasserie in SoHo – come to create one of the country’s most iconic sushi concepts with Toshi?
Back in 1994, the success of Blue Ribbon Brasserie and a devout customer base brought about an opportunity and a desire to continue on and grow. The Brombergs had so many ideas and so many things they wanted to do that they began to look for new opportunities, but first had to deal with a growing problem: they had no space. They had never dreamed of being so busy, and had run out of space for linens, wine, dry goods, and all the rest.
They reached out to their landlord and asked if there were any potential properties on the street that they might be able to use to deal with the overflow. It turned out that there was such a space; it was the old stroller storage at the base of the non-elevator building just a few steps down the street from the brasserie. The only downside was that it had street access, and that would make it a bit more expensive than something buried in the bowels of the late 1880’s tenement house.
As Bruce Bromberg explains, “We began to think and plot as to what we could do with this space. It was tiny, but could easily house a storage room and a small office, and maybe even a small shop up front to offset the huge rental cost of $1,800 a month! Cooking was not an option due to the inability to ventilate the tiny space, so a small fish market or a simple bar were the front-runner ideas.”
Then a lightbulb went off, “How about a sushi bar?!” In NYC in 1993 there were high-end Japanese sushi places and low-end, all-you-can-eat dives, but not a lot in between. “We thought we could make something much better and far more accommodating and welcoming to the American customer. Why did we need to be treated in a dismissive manner and not be given the best fish at the top spots, or be subject to bad hygiene, bright lights and a lackluster service if we didn’t want to hock the family silver just to get a good meal?”
There was just one problem, while Bruce and Eric could prepare a perfectly acceptable Blanquette de Veau or a slightly more complex Tournados Rossini, the two didn’t know the first thing about how to make a California Roll, let alone start up a sushi restaurant.
So the search began. Bruce says, “We needed to find a partner, a sushi guy, a real live sushi master. We began to eat at every sushi restaurant in NYC – from uptown to downtown, fancy to common, we tried them all. One night, months into the project after a long day of hammering cedar planks and slicing walnut boards, we headed to the eponymous Sushisay.
Sushisay was the top tier, in both price and quality at that time in NYC, and basically way out of our league. We ordered carefully and maneuvered our way through the complicated menu with little help from the staff. At the end, we felt inadequate, and left disappointed. Service was pretentious and not nice, and the food was just OK. We clearly didn’t merit their best quality products and left wondering if we were on the right path or not. Eric and I headed home, but decided to take a longer route back to our Murray Hill residence so we could talk things through. We had been building for months, making little progress on both the construction of the new restaurant, as well as finding the perfect partner to help us realize our dream.”
Eric continues, “Right then, we passed a little hole-in-the-wall spot called Mishima. The room was brightly lit and barren, with just three people in the space: a customer seated at the sushi bar, a waitress seated at a nearby table leafing through a small pile of crumpled bills, and a small man standing proudly behind his bar. It was late and we were tired, but thought maybe just one hand roll would be all right, and surely a hot sake or two couldn’t hurt at this point, either. The door opened to the clamor of chimes and bells that were taped to the doorframe. Three warm faces turned and simultaneously welcomed us with the traditional, ’Irasshai!’”
The first bite of the Spicy Scallop Roll was a revelation like no other! That moment has stood in time, unwavering, and never faltering. The sweet and tangy depth of the perfectly steamed and slightly warm rice, the bright pop of the vibrant masago, the hint of sesame oil and the crisp crunch of the lightly toasted nori all held the luscious sea scallops in the highest regard. Their search was over.
Regarding the profound impact of that night, Bruce proudly explains, “From that point, on Dashi has been every part as important to our culinary repertoire as Fond de Veau, Sake as Sancerre, Soy Sauce as Beurre Blanc, Masago as Caviar, Ankimo as Foie Gras, and perfectly sliced raw tuna as relevant as a perfectly roasted squab.”
“That night everything changed, and Toshi Ueki became our partner, our spiritual leader and our mentor. Together over the past 20 years, we have opened izakayas, sake bars, and full-scale Japanese-inspired Sushi Bar & Grills, all under the moniker of Blue Ribbon.”
Even in the midst of that life-changing culinary experience at Mishima, as Bruce and Eric describe it, “It was his rice that made our heads turn. It wasn’t the amazing spicy scallop hand roll or the perfectly sliced kanpachi sashimi he proudly served us, it was the rice!”
Toshi always said, “anyone can buy good fish, but not everyone takes the time to make great rice.” It is with that pursuit of excellence that Blue Ribbon has been driven all these years to procure the best ingredients with the understanding that every element of the sushi experience really matters. More than 25 years later, we are still serving the same products which we feel differentiate our sushi experience from all others.
Toshi Ueki’s influence on Blue Ribbon’s sushi restaurants expands beyond fish and rice, though. Bruce goes on to explain, “Our soy sauce is aged in oak casks for 24 months to produce a rich, well-rounded, less salty profile. Our wasabi is grated wasabi root that actually tastes like a vegetable. Our ginger is sliced thin and pickled in just the right amount of vinegar and sweetness to compliment the fish. All these decisions many years ago with Toshi-san have led to what we consider to be the most important aspects of the Blue Ribbon Sushi Experience.”
Toshi-san passed away on April 23, 2018, surrounded by family and loved ones. In addition to his wife Margarita and two sons, Yuske and Ryuji, Toshi left behind his entire Blue Ribbon Family who will forever be inspired by his unwavering respect for tradition, kindness and selfless dedication to his team, his family and partners, and to teaching the mastery of his craft to all of those who knew him.
Even though Toshi often stood behind the spotlight his efforts and accomplishments, creativity and passion and endless smile and sense of humor will forever be remembered as a game changer on the American culinary landscape.