Midtown East, the exciting hub of financial firms, big corporations and Hale and Hearty chains, never had much appeal to me. But one thing that can lure me to that side of town are the many great options for a sushi lunch. Normally a sushi dinner at Kurumazushi, an old school veteran of the high-end Manhattan sushi scene, would set you back at least $100 a person, but the lunch is a more affordable option at $25 a set, $35 for sashimi only. Four different types of gleaming fresh fish and a bowl of miso soup arrive at your table in very efficient fashion, leaving you to enjoy a Michelin caliber meal without going over your lunch break. The location isn’t the nicest, and you will be surrounded by suits, but this is a small price to pay for a really good sushi deal.
7 E. 47th St (between 5th Ave and Madison Ave)
New York, NY 10017
Does the high-end sushi omakase market in NY seem a bit crowded to you? Shuko, Yasuda, Nakazawa, Neta, O Ya…and now there’s a new one to add to the list. Sushi Zo, a highly acclaimed LA based restaurant that tops all the best of lists in that city, seems confident that it has something new to offer with its $200 a head omakase. Chef Masa made the move on behalf of the LA team to run the east coast franchise, which is curiously located on the scrappy streets of Greenwich Village. The space has the standard minimalist look and feel of a serious sushi restaurant run by a control freak chef, but Masa-san is not one of those martinets who demand that you eat something in a particular way. He seems a lot more Americanized than most sushi chefs and hence engages comfortably with his customers like a peer, which makes for a relaxed atmosphere. No tense exchanges for mistakenly dipping your fish in soy sauce or not using your fingers.
In my opinion, what makes Sushi Zo different from other places is its technique of pre-seasoning its sushi with sauces beyond the typical soy, as well as a local approach to sourcing its fish. A lot of the fish was from Long Island or North Carolina, which I found to be very interesting, as other restaurants seem to fly in everything from Japan. And the quality of these domestic fish was very good and made me rethink the whole Japan is better mentality when it comes to raw fish.
I’m usually on the fence when it comes to pre-marinated sushi, especially when they get a little non traditional with the ponzu and the yuzu, because shouldn’t the fish be good on its own? But the sea bream with roasted shishito peppers convinced me otherwise. It’s definitely ok to dress up your fish a little bit. And I’m always a stickler for a great anago, a creamier and flakier eel than its fishier, freshwater counterpart unagi. I first had anago at Nakamura in Tokyo, and the one at Sushi Zo was just as dreamy.
By the end of the meal, I was completely stuffed and felt like I was suffering from gout. There were a lot of pieces in the omakase, but at the same time, it cost $200 a person, so you should be getting the whole sea at that price point. It’s hard being the new kid in town, especially one that’s full of more established sushi restaurants. I’m not quite sure if Sushi Zo’s style is distinctive enough or significantly better than the competition’s to consistently draw business its way, but Masa-san and his staff definitely deserve a closer look.
88 W. 3rd St (between Sullivan and Thompson St)
New York, NY 10012
Hand rolls are often relegated to the sidelines at sushi restaurants. During an omakase, the emphasis is on the sushi or sashimi, and if a handroll is included, it usually arrives towards the end, when the diner’s attention wanes and the superfluous rice muffles the flavors of the fish. DOMODOMO, a sushi bar in Greenwich Village, is one of those rare restaurants that specializes in hand rolls, featuring them in ways that are much more interesting than the ubiquitous spicy mayo variety.
The restaurant has the clean, minimalist look of a traditional sushi bar, but the atmosphere is a lot more lively than the serious-minded silence that fills the room of other places. That’s not to say that this levity implies a lower level of skill at DOMODOMO. It’s true that they take a nontraditional approach to their hand rolls. At times they might pre-treat their fish in a bbq soy glaze or in a Korean seasoning, for instance, rather than having the customer season to taste with soy sauce, but it’s all done very thoughtfully and not in a gimmicky way. You won’t find gigantic, nonsensical Dragon or Spider rolls on this menu.
The menu also offers a variety of appetizers and select sushi pieces to complement your hand rolls. I would recommend the hand roll course, which features a good mix of things–cooked plates, hand rolls, a few sushi pieces and a dessert. If you’re going a la carte, the blue crab, unagi and lobster hand rolls are must do’s, and if you’re not really feeling the whole hand roll thing, the sushi menu for $52 is a very good deal that lets you have a more traditional sushi bar experience that’s more fish and less rice. The sushi, by the way, was clean, fresh and delicious, with the salmon, unagi and ebi pieces really standing out. DOMODOMO is dedicated to quality, and their fish can certainly stand on its own without the protective cover of sushi rice.
I am a huge fan of green tea anything, so of course, for dessert, I ordered the hojicha pudding, a light panna cotta-like custard that was flavored with roasted green tea. The water chestnut panna cotta had a very similar flavor profile, except it was nuttier and earthier. In general, the desserts here are sweet but subtle in that understated Japanese way, as they should be, because anything sweeter would overshadow the fantastic sushi that came beforehand.
138 W. Houston St (between Macdougal and Sullivan St)
New York, NY 10012
Sushi Azabu is one of those restaurants so under the radar that you can’t even see it on the street. For awhile, it used to be in the basement of the Greenwich Grill, and now it’s underneath an izakaya place called Daruma-ya. You might wonder how a restaurant with such a low profile can survive in this town, but with sushi this good, strong word-of-mouth will keep them coming.
You can either choose one of the omakase options, or you can order dishes a la carte. We opted for an abbreviated omakase titled the “omotenashi course”, which featured a different assortment of sushi, sashimi and small hot plates, as well as a hot bowl of soba at the end. We supplemented that with the nigiri special, a chef’s selection of 10 pieces of sushi, a maki roll, an egg omelet and some miso soup.
The fish truly has that soft, melt-in-your-mouth quality that can only be found in the freshest catch. I was also struck by how much I liked the sushi rice. The rice was a bit al dente, but with some cohesion between the grains, and there was a subtle sweet and tangy flavor aspect that was very appealing. According to their website, Azabu uses a unique blend of sushi rice imported directly from Japan and from a prior year’s crop so that it avoids the overly-high water content that you find in fresh harvests of rice. They always say the difference between sushi places is really the rice, since all the best restaurants source fish from the same places, and I didn’t really appreciate that until now.
The cooked dishes were just as good as the raw courses. The dreamy blend of rich, briney uni and salty salmon roe in our tofu dish was just so effortlessly good, and the yellowtail collar had been cooked perfectly so that the crackling skin unearthed a plethora of tender, mild meat. The deep fried taro potato with duck was certainly rich but also very clean. so that any sense of heaviness was very much contained.
Really, the only thing I didn’t like about Azabu was the physical space. The booths were arranged along the walls so that there was an odd, open space in the middle. The atmosphere felt a bit cold and impersonal, and it didn’t help that with all the mood lighting and clubby music, that you felt like you were in a hotel lobby. Obviously there are worse things in life than eating fantastic sushi in a nice hotel lobby.
428 Greenwich St (between Vestry and Laight)
New York, NY 10013
Our second day in Tokyo was a lazy one. The early morning sushi wake-up call and the jet lag were wearing on us a little. We decided to do as few planned activities as possible–a visit to the Meiji Temple, and then an open itinerary for the rest of the day.
After a peaceful walk through the Meiji Temple, in which we witnessed a traditional wedding ceremony take place, we made our way to Shibuya to check out potential sightings of crazy Harajuku street fashions (of which there were none), as well as to eat gyoza at this highly popular place Harajuku Gyozaro. Unfortunately the restaurant was closed for renovations, so we decided to eat at a nearby Southeast Asian restaurant called Chao Bamboo. Judging by the line of locals out the door, we figured that the food must be pretty good. Eating pho and papaya salad in Japan might sound a little weird, but our meal was very tasty, and that Indonesian fried rice was outstanding.
After more window shopping, we went back to our hotel to freshen up and met up with some friends for pre-dinner cocktails at the historic Hotel Okura. It was pretty clear that this hotel was from another time, probably in the 1950s where well-dressed Japanese people would come here for cigars and a classy cocktail or two. I ordered a moscow mule, which was well mixed and very refreshing.
But really we were biding time until the real highlight of the evening, an omakase at Sushi Nakamura, a Michelin star establishment in Roppongi. As soon as 9 pm arrived, we took a taxi over to the restaurant, which was housed behind a set of non-descript wooden sliding doors. Once inside, we were seated around a small sushi bar managed by a very zen-like chef whose shaved head and simple robe enhanced the monastic vibe that he gave off.
Sometimes omakase dinners aren’t the most relaxing experiences, in which the sushi chefs call you out if you aren’t consuming the dish properly, and they sort of point-blank ask you if you liked each piece. This chef, on the other hand, was low key and non-confrontational, which I liked. He gave you something, you’d eat it, probably love it, and then move on. The only exchange of words needed is if you want extra pieces of the courses you especially enjoyed, which is an option at the end of the omakase, and something you’ll likely take him up on. The eel here is amazing, it’s nothing like the tough, salty, boney strands that are slapped on rice beds in your run-of-the-mill sushi place. You can’t taste any bones here, the meat dissolves in your mouth like foam, which is pretty unreal and fantastic. The toro of course was excellent, as was the Santa Barbara uni and the egg custard, which was very similar to the Jiro kind. Here are some pictures of each course in the omakase.
Rather than trying to follow up this grand finale with another epic meal and risk disappointment if it didn’t measure up, our last supper was a simple bowl of ramen noodles at Gogyo. Japan is obviously the ramen epicenter of the universe with endless varieties to choose from, many of which we’ve never had, including the burnt miso ramen, which Gogyo is known for.
The burnt miso gets its name from the charred bits of lard residue that are poured into a miso flavored broth, resulting in a thick and savory tar pit that is more sauce than soup. There’s no way you can actually slurp the broth, since it’s probably 100% fat and extremely dense. It’s meant to just coat the noodles like a tsukemen or mazemen, which was disappointing because the broth is one of my favorite parts of ramen. But I got over it, because there were many more epic meals to look forward to on the rest of the trip…onwards to Hakone…
Sushi Nakamura 7-17-16 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 106-0032, Japan
Chao Bamboo 6-7-12 Jingumae, Shibuya Tokyo Prefecture, Japan
1-4-36 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku
Tokyo, 106-0031, Japan