True sushi connoisseurs are to normal snooty food types what Trappist monks are to the cardinals of Rome. They eat their uncooked fish with a quiet, almost monastic rigor, and their palates are gauged to the tiniest affront. They can tell instantly whether the sushi rice has been too softly cooked or cooked with too much vinegar, or whether it’s served fresh every twenty minutes, the way proper sushi chefs do it in Japan. They will judge a sushi bar not so much by the quality of the bluefin toro (at $12 per piece, that should be self-evident) but by the size of the sushi (smallish, not big) and the color of the palate-cleansing ginger (yellowish, not pink). They know that sake goes best with sashimi, not sushi, that a real sushi-ya serves fish only (not California rolls, God forbid, or tempura), and that the only place to enjoy it is at the bar, where you have the chef’s full attention. I once asked a mild-mannered Japanese entrepreneur his opinion of the sushi at Nobu, and he gave a regretful sigh. “Compared to what I’m used to,” he said, “I’m afraid it’s a kind of surf-and-turf experience.”
The latest establishment to come under the withering gaze of the town’s sushi monks is an unlikely little restaurant in the East Village called Jewel Bako (literally, “Jewel Box”). The purest Japanese sushi restaurants are tiny neighborhood joints, and in scale and location, Jewel Bako fits that profile. It’s located off Second Avenue on a leafy stretch of 5th Street, in a former video store. With the help of the designer, Hiromi Tsuruta, the owners, Jack and Grace Lamb (she used to work at Tiffany’s; he’s a longtime sushi nut and a former maître d’ at Bouley Bakery), have rewired the little shoebox space with soft, yellowish lighting, golden bamboo chairs, and two curved bamboo arches running the length of the room. Except for a tiny picture window, the storefront is walled with dark stucco, in the chaste Japanese style, with a small glassed-in rock garden running along its base. The sushi bar itself is cut from strips of white bamboo and seats only six, and you can sip an array of “artisan” sakes costing as much as $15 per glass while you wait for your dinner.
Jewel Bako is a restaurant conceived for the most precious kind of sushi aesthete, and if you don’t like it, you can take your limp noris and cat-food-filled California rolls and dine someplace else. Mindful of this, I hunkered respectfully at the bar on my first visit and let chef Tatsuya Nagata take me on an omakase tasting tour of the menu. First up, a tea bowl of baby scallops mixed with the greenest fava beans in a kind of sweet sesame mayonnaise. After that came a $12 piece of creamy o-toro, tuna belly, which melted appropriately in the mouth. It was followed by glittery portions of jack mackerel and a strip of crunchy octopus dusted with a mossy, gunpowderlike substance that Nagata identified as green-tea salt. Subsequent bites of sushi were garnished with little piles of citrus or yuzu pepper or grated ginger. When I dunked my fish in too much soy sauce, the chef began brushing on the soy sauce himself, in moderate dabs, to ensure a properly balanced taste.
Needless to say, the sushi monks I brought to Jewel Bako thought they were in pig heaven. Among appetizers, a pink wheel of toro tartare (on a guacamole base) was generally admired, as was a creamy mousse made from something called kabu turnips, with a tottering structure of king-crab’s legs and caviar on top. There are also two different sushi selections on the menu ($29 for ten pieces being the most pricey); 21 varieties of maki roll, filled with ascetic fillings like kishu plums; and a fine variety of uni flown in from Santa Barbara. Standard favorites like hamachi (yellowtail) and pearly ahi shrimp were good also, but the real surprise at Jewel Bako was the desserts. These included tiny balls of sake sorbet and a kind of red-bean chocolate mousse decorated with flecks of gold leaf. Best of all were the mission figs, which were served in a simple compote, with a hint of shiso cream on top. When Nagata asked if they were acceptable, I bowed my head deferentially. “Yes, Chef,” I said, before devouring my figs silently, in tiny little bites.
Jewel Bako, 239 East 5th Street (212-979-1012). Open for dinner only, 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. (closed Mondays). Appetizers, $3.50-$14; entrées, $16-$29. All major credit cards.