When it comes to sushi restaurants, the flavor of the moment seems to be Sushi Nakazawa, a tiny restaurant run by one of Jiro’s former apprentices. Up until Nakazawa’s ascent, Tanoshi and Sushi Dojo got a lot of buzz, while old stalwarts like Yasuda and 15 East managed to still stay relevant. But one restaurant that flies a bit under the radar is Jewel Bako. This is surprising, considering it is one of a handful of NYC sushi restaurants that received a Michelin star last year, yet it seems to get overshadowed by the flashier upstarts and the old guard.
Jewel Bako is literally a street away from where I live, so I’m surprised I haven’t paid a visit yet. I think one reason why is the price point. Excellent sushi tends to fall on the high end of the pricing spectrum, and if you pay anywhere below that than the quality drops off considerably. You either pay up for really amazing sushi, or you pay less for decent sushi. Price and quantity are two of my most important dinner decision making factors, so Jewel Bako, with its Michelin couvert premium and dainty sushi pieces, usually gets ruled out. I’m more of a Kanoyama or Ushiwakamaru girl–the price points are much more accessible, yet the quality of the sushi is surprisingly high.
One night, we made dinner plans at Narcissa, the new restaurant at the Standard East Hotel, only to have a change of heart when the maître d’ gave us a lot of attitude. Last minute Saturday night reservations are tough, but luckily Jewel Bako had availability and we made our way to the cozy, slick bomb shelter dining room. This turned out to be a good move, because the sashimi omakase was great, and who really wants to eat $20 carrots?
Things started on an auspicious note with the amuse bouche, a small but impactful bite of spicy tuna and crispy rice. Crunchy and smooth, spicy and savory–the amuse-bouche engaged a variety of the senses. Some of the members in my dining party complained that the rice should have been served warm, but I didn’t mind it at room temperature. Warm temperatures bring out the flavors of soft, vinegar-seasoned rice, but when it’s been cooked to a crisp, I don’t see how the temperature would add anything.
This was followed by a warm bowl of miso soup, some edamame and the trio of tartares, featuring blue-fin tuna, salmon and yellowtail. The salmon and tuna tartares were solid but didn’t leave a particularly strong impression. It’s sort of how I feel about the 1st round contenders on The Voice. There are a lot of pleasant singers who are clearly talented, yet they manage to be totally forgettable. The yellowtail, on the other hand, instantly had me at hello with the savory umami sensations that were elicited forth. Something about it was pleasingly briney, salty and unctuous, and I couldn’t get enough.
The sashimi omakase arrived all at once on a platter. I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t arrive piece by piece in true omakase style. I think you have to order the chef’s omakase tasting menu to get that experience, and you probably have to sit at the sushi bar. There was good variety and representation in the sashimi omakase: blue-fin toro, medium toro, amberjack, yellowtail, red snapper, scallop, squid, mackerel and salmon. The best pieces by far were the toros, especially the medium toro, which had that essential rich, melt-in-your-mouth quality that I love about great sushi. I expected a bit more from the white fish pieces, which were a bit lacking in the flavor personality department. I wanted something buttery and rapturous, but it was a bit of a sashimi wallflower. Obviously they were a notch way above your standard take-out place pieces, but not by as much as I thought they should be. I surprisingly liked the scallop, which I typically never do at sushi restaurants. They tend to be flavorless and rubbery, but the ones at Jewel Bako were tender and actually had a bright, sea breeze taste to them.
I was a bit unfulfilled by the omakase, mainly because I didn’t have a taste of my beloved uni or tamago, a sentimental favorite. We had to order these pieces separately, and I was rather looking forward to the uni since it happened to be from Santa Barbara, and I just love the rich creaminess of West Coast uni. The uni at Jewel Bako, however, was disappointingly a bit too stark and briney for my liking. The egg sushi, on the other hand, was probably the best tamago that I’ve ever had in my life. The egg was so light and fluffy, I almost felt like I was eating a souffle. Now I can kind of believe why that Jiro apprentice Nakazawa had to make egg custard 200 times before perfecting it. There is a clear difference between great egg and decent egg custard. and I’ve finally had a taste of greatness at Jewel Bako. I bet Jewel Bako chef Yoshi Kousaka probably spent a long time trying to perfect his, and he probably cried too once he had that breakthrough.
Our bill was pretty “sizable” as someone put it. The final tab came out to $100 per person, which included the omakase, a shared bottle of sake and the appetizers. At that price point, I wanted to have a transcendent experience like the one I had at Sushi Sasabune, where every piece seemed to dissolve at the touch and blew me away. I would definitely come here again, but not for the omakase experience. I’d rather spend my dollars wisely and selectively pick the pieces that Jewel Bako truly excels at–there are clearly a lot of gems in this jewel box, but not all that glitters is gold.
239 E. 5th St (between 2nd and 3rd Ave)
New York, NY 10003