Photograph by Davies and Starr.
Sushi savants know they may need to float a small loan to pay for a few ounces of dinner. How about $18 for a ribbon of rare fatty tuna and a few grains of rice? But the arrival this past February of Masa and his $300 omakase (now $350) challenged even big spenders. Still, sushi thrives in this town. Here’s a guide to the best at any price.
There are only ten seats that mean anything at Masa. They are the lushly tufted leather-capped stools at the gleaming $60,000 hinoki-wood counter, center stage of the reserved, sweet-faced master, Masa Takayama. Surrender to his simple dogma, a ritualistic omakase of meticulous perfection. Silent minions step in and out of his aura, slapping objects into his hand like so many surgical nurses, but it is the spotlit Masa who slivers and chops and squeezes the odd little lime on your toro. I inhale the intense forest scent of my wooden sake cup and feel myself drifting into a trance even before the prologue of small seasonal salads begins. Before the hairy crab, the mysterious eel liver, before a small glass of fatty toro with its plop of caviar, before the foie gras melts into the shabu-shabu. If you have to ask the price (it climbs to $450 or more if you’re thirsty), it’s probably not for you.
10 Columbus Circle, at 59th St.; 212-823-9800
If a sushi bar could be Greta Garbo, it would be Megu. Sleek Art Deco, black tassels on white leather seats, silken pillows, and a lipstick-red backdrop behind blossoms in giant urns. “Amaze us,” I instruct the sushi chef. Owner Koji Imai tap-dances behind us, punctuating a lyrical omakase with sweet-tinged cubes of Kobe beef and surreal tofu—so fresh it seems to breathe. With our backs to the gorgeous drama of the room, even the cacophonous buzz fades away as the mouth shock of unexpected textures begins with imported horse mackerel trailing like a ball gown over a snippet of rice. A smart sliver of astonishingly sublime Japanese snapper follows. “The current in the bay massages the flesh,” our server chimes in. Yes, the menu is dense, annoying, unfathomable, and the prices unseemly, but massaged into euphoria by the pampering and edible art, I (uncharacteristically) ﬁnd tonight’s $370 tariff for two almost reasonable.
62 Thomas St., nr. Church St.; 212-964-7777
No sign outside guides the uninitiated to Kurumazushi, the no-frills hideaway at the top of a shabby stairway that I favor when I want to fly to another dimension on a wave of classic sushi. Once we are the subject of Toshihiro Uezu’s focus, it feels like no one else exists. He warms us up with yellowtail in all sizes, each with its own name, each a different texture, climaxing with the yellowtail throat. Then two sweet raw shrimp each, cloaked in a slice of ginger. And tuna, fat and fattier. Uezu is building to a crescendo. Raw shrimp again, voluptuous grown-ups from Florida with an amazing mouthfeel. Minced toro on a small block of rice. Imported mackerel. Amberjack. Every morsel has a unique personality. Am I imagining that each wasabi hit gets stronger? I feel it slicing through my prefrontal lobe. As always, I ask for sea urchin “as dessert,” wanting to go away wreathed in that intense briny perfume, blissfully immune to the $140 tariff per person.
7 E. 47th St., nr. Fifth Ave.; 212-317-2802
Moderate To Expensive
Gari stalkers are restless, waiting for his West Side seed to blossom at 370 Columbus Avenue (near 78th Street—January at the latest). Meanwhile, it takes a long and delicate courtship to score a seat at the cramped ten-seat counter in front of “Gari”—Masatoshi Sugio, the great sensai of creative aquatic play. Pilgrims huddle outside under plastic when it’s icy cold waiting for a table in the pocket-size Sushi of Gari, his East Side flagship. Tagging along with a regular, we get the crucial counter corner. With the sea creatures he has on hand—mostly imported—Sugio can do 60 of his 120 variations tonight, he boasts, tossing a salad of bass slivers with baby watercress, a crunch of potato chips and pine nuts. Tonight it’s lyrically fatty salmon layered with tomato cooked and raw, spiked with purple onion. Bean-curd froth cloaking otoro as voluptuous as velour. Small fried oysters huddled in a nori cup. Sweet raw baby shrimp slashed into flowerlike petals. Sugio rarely uses wasabi and prefers we not use soy. After two or three sea-urchin riffs, there is a finale: Gari’s version of risotto with the rarer-than-rare outer eggs of the snow crab. Sushi starts at $40 here, but for the ultimate epiphany (with sake and beer), we’ll pay $125 each, all included.
402 E. 78th St., nr. First Ave.; 212-517-5340
BondSt still has an electric snap, a lingering air of trendiness, without the dizzying assault of being this week’s imperative. It’s sexy and youngish, perfect for when the sushi IQ of your date is unknown. Ideal for me is to be just two at the sushi bar in the hands of Hiroshi Nakahara, a Magellan in the craft of New Age sushi. Tonight, we have amberjack in a light ponzu sauce with Sichuan pepper, seared bluefin tuna with garlic chips, sweetly creamy raw shrimp slit open to hold a dab of caviar and wasabi, raw lobster pulsating as if alive. I make a face over his Gorgonzola-painted tuna. Hiroshi giggles. Billowing uni on a tuffet of rice clears the palate. Omakase starts at $60, but ours costs $130 each with sake, tax, and tip.
6 Bond St., nr. Lafayette St.; 212-777-2500
At Jewel Bako, the product is obsessively traditional, much of it imported, and the execution is personal, sometimes whimsical or Kill Bill–esque—like the sashimi-cut lobster still thrashing in its wooden chariot. Is owner Jack Lamb sipping each château sake before he pours? His hip little patter gets sillier and wilder as we forge our way past toro tartare with avocado to monkfish liver paired with a remarkably pungent ponzu jelly. We’re perched on a banquette sampling a jazzed-up riff of the house’s usual $85 tasting (omakase starts at $50), as Lamb pours a different sake with each dish into unmatched glasses from his wife’s crystal collection ($50-per-person extra). Gifted sushi chefs rotate here, but it makes little difference, since what lands in your mouth has to do with Lamb’s piscatorial obsessiveness. Ask a question, and he comes running with his encyclopedia of the sea. All the usual suspects appear tonight, mounted like Buccellati jewels. Now Lamb pours a lush Pinot Noir into outsize goblets and claims: “I think red wine is perfect with sushi.” Amazingly, I have to agree.
239 E. 5th St., nr. Second Ave.; 212-979-1012
Serious sushi hounds are discovering that nirvana awaits if pint-size Kazuo Yoshida is balancing on his wooden platform clogs behind the small, glowing coral sushi bar at Geisha. Yoshida baits his omakase with lustrous sashimi—white tuna, a sliver of silver needlefish tied in a knot, satiny baby shrimp, octopus so fresh it jumps when he pokes it. The sushi rolls that come to the table are handsome but lackluster. Still, Geisha’s pizza-king owners indulge Yoshida’s fans with costly creatures from faraway waters. Tasmanian salmon with a stripe of cured seaweed is sweetness on the tongue. A tartare mixing chopped shimi aji (striped jack) and Japanese pea-shell scallop in a cloud of chive green tastes like a fresh salad. In no time, he’s knocked our socks off. (Sushi platters, $50, $75, $100, and up.)
33 E. 61st St., nr. Madison Ave.; 212-813-1112
Ebisu is driven by classic sushi tradition. But to keep the check moderate in this fiercely plain boxlike setting, Kondo Shigeo relies on imported condiments and intriguing garnishes more than on expensive swimmers from Japanese seas. He makes a gelatin of yuzu, soy, fish bones, and vinegar in tangy harmony and drapes slivers of it across red-snapper sushi. His ginger is unlike any I’ve encountered, more or less pickled depending on the sea creature it goes with. Kondo slices a scallop from its shell, then prepares battera sushi—rice packed tightly into a mold with veins of shiso-soy-sesame paste—and tops it with scintillating saba (mackerel). Omakase regulars expect to see a check for $65 to $75, beer or sake, tax and tip included.
414 E. 9th St., nr. First Ave.; 212-979-9899
Tsuki is unabashedly modest. The dozen or so different sakes chilling in the glass-fronted cooler are the lone clue that this is not just another prefab canteen. Kazutoshi Maeda’s bosslike necktie signals he’s the knife in charge. Reed-thin, cheeks deep as craters—his crow’s feet have crow’s feet. “Omakase, of course,” my companion says. “Give us whatever you have hidden away.” He pulls out a small gleaming aji mackerel, dabs one fillet with grated ginger and scallion, and serves it in ribbons with the skeleton twisted like a flower. Locals who make this a hangout are likely to fill up on the $9.95 Volcano roll. But Maeda has our message. He torches the skin of a tiny red snapper, then brushes it with egg sauce and more scallion, creating another stunning little still life. Maeda seems to be ad-libbing as he goes, alternating sashimi and sushi: Cubes of salmon in a carrot sauce. Freshwater eel tossed with cucumber, in a dark, sticky sauce. White salmon dabbed with dill sauce. I can’t remember any omakase ($100 per person with sake and tip) that left me feeling so full.
1410 First Ave., nr. 74th St.; 212-517-6860