Sushi Goes Tuna-Belly Up
Not so long ago, assorted tin-pot prognosticators and gasbag critics (like yours truly) were prophesying the demise of the boom-era sushi culture. Well, not anymore. For a new generation of big-money diners, o-toro tuna belly has replaced foie gras and the white truffle as the ultimate power food, and the city is in the grips of a miraculous sushi renaissance. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you try to book a seat at Toshio Oguma’s wildly popular Tanoshi Sushi Sake Bar, up on York Avenue, where it’s more difficult to reserve one of the ten seats at the diminutive, slightly ramshackle bar than it is to score a table at Le Bernardin or Per Se. Oguma’s selection of fish isn’t elaborate by old, midtown-sushi standards, but everything on the constantly changing omakase menu is impeccably sourced (Santa Barbara uni, fresh scallops flown in from Hokkaido, silvery Atlantic shad), and at $65 for a ten-piece dinner, you can’t beat the price.
For a few dollars more, you’ll find similar treats on the menu at Kura, which has been attracting crowds of discerning East Village sushi freaks ever since it opened last year on the fringes of Tompkins Square Park. The genial sushiya, Norihiro Ishizuka, offers a variety of elaborate non-sushi options on his omakase menu, but if you’re wise, you’ll focus on the fish, which has included four different grades of pink, top-quality tuna, along with a clean, deeply refreshing hand roll filled with shreds of shiso and salty, popping salmon roe.
My favorite dish on John Daley’s inventive omakase menu at New York Sushi Ko, down on Clinton Street, is the o-toro tuna belly, which the New Jersey–born sushi chef drips with blowtorched tuna lardo and dresses with curls of fried tuna chicharrónes. But if you’re on a slightly tighter budget, you won’t do better than the $45 ten-piece sushi option that the city’s other prominent non-Japanese gaijin sushi master, David Bouhadana, serves at Sushi Dojo, which has been doing a brisk business ever since it opened its doors on First Avenue in the East Village. Whenever my deep-pocketed friends want a more traditional and (at $160 per head) classically priced sushi experience, they travel down to the eight-seat bar Ichimura at Brushstroke, where the well-traveled Tokyo sushi master Eiji Ichimura doles out his slices of edo-mae-style tuna belly and goldeneye snapper piece by glistening piece, with the friendly but firm instruction to “not use too much soy sauce, please.”
Similar subtly traditional pleasures are available at the discreet new Soho establishment Hirohisa, where the small-plates expert Hirohisa Hayashi specializes in serving the quirky dishes beloved by Japanese omakase purists, like squares of warm sesame tofu topped with spoonfuls of fresh uni, which I washed down, on my visit, with icy carafes of expertly curated junmai ginjo sake. Sake is also one of the specialties at the city’s most eagerly awaited new sushi palace, Sushi Nakazawa, which opened in August on a tree-lined townhouse street in the West Village. The ebullient chef, Daisuke Nakazawa, is famous in sushi circles as the former apprentice of the great Japanese sushi god Jiro Ono. Unlike Jiro’s famously monastic Tokyo establishment, this restaurant features custom black leather swivel chairs at the gleaming white marble omakase bar and a dimly lit, poshly appointed dining room. And unlike his severe sensei, Nakazawa exudes bonhomie and good cheer as he serves his spare, often locally sourced omakase dinner to his customers. Everything I sampled during my visits was worth the $150 price of admission, but pay special attention to the sweet, pale, almost vanilla-colored uni from Santa Barbara, which is scooped from its spiky shell by Nakazawa himself, and the elaborate sake pairing, which, at $40 for six to seven glasses, is one of the best drinking deals in town.