Mon-Fri, 7pm-1am; Sat, 5pm-11pm; Sun, closed
F, J, M, Z at Delancey St.-Essex St.; N, R at 8th St.-NYU
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The old chef-as-rock-musician trope has worn a little thin in this age of scruffy kitchen beards, tediously loud restaurant soundtracks, and omnipresent sleeve tattoos. But spend an evening watching the frenetic (and, yes, tattooed) New Jersey-bred sushi chef John Daley blowtorching his signature tuna chicharrón to the sounds of Heart’s “Crazy On You” and you’ll understand where it comes from. Daley used to have a sous-chef helping out behind the bar of this tiny, unorthodox Clinton Street sushi-ya, called New York Sushi Ko, but these days it’s just him on the stage. As the patrons file into the eleven-seat restaurant (or, as sometimes happens, blanch at the epic, front-row ticket prices and walk out the door), he boisterously greets them, and then, with exaggerated bows, begins his elaborate omakase performance.
All top-level sushi chefs develop a trademark style, of course, and in the six months that Sushi Ko has been open, Daley’s has evolved. When I first dropped into the restaurant, several months ago, the chef was wearing an overly large towel around his head (probably to absorb the summer sweat). His voice boomed manically around the matchbox space, and in comparison with other, more classically decorous sushi joints in town, the helter-skelter choreography with his (equally large, non-Japanese) sous-chef seemed almost comically awkward. I’m happy to report, however, that Daley has now lost the samurai head towel (or at least he doesn’t wear it every night). The last time I visited, he was dressed in a flannel vest and an elegantly knotted black tie, and after working for months alone behind the bar, he retains his refreshing exuberance but his style seems more relaxed and composed.
The same goes for Daley’s elaborate, often unexpected omakase interpretations, most of which tend to combine by-the-book technique with a zealous convert’s willingness to think outside the box. Daley apprenticed with Masato Shimizu of 15 East, among others, and like him he gets the majority of his fish flown in from Tokyo twice a week. Unlike many sushi chefs, he has a fondness for sandwiching tuna bacon and uni between slices of tuna (“I call it my B.U.T.”), and drenching high-quality tuna belly tartare in droplets of smoky, freshly sizzled tuna fat (for the aforementioned chicharrón). Depending on which very expensive omakase option you choose, these dishes are served in between bites of miso-braised pork ribs (served over rice) or sweet hotate scallops from Hokkaido poured with a velvety uni sauce and wreathed in a cloud of yuzu foam.
These dishes are more or less perfect in terms of technique and the quality of ingredients, although you may grow weary, like I did, of the endless iterations of uni, which Daley employs the way the old French chefs used to use butter and cream. The sushi and sashimi portions of the menu are more restrained, in particular the nicely composed sashimi plate, which includes a slip of Japanese black sea bass charred on top to a gentle crisp. Pay attention also to the goldeneye snapper sushi (it’s given a gentle pass with the blowtorch too), and the silvery mackerel fished from the waters off the island of Kyushu, which the chef cures to a rich, torolike softness in rice vinegar, just the way the grand sushi masters in Tokyo do, then serves over a pat of bottom-of-the-barrel “kettle rice” for a subversive, downtown crunch.Ideal Meal