Sushi connoisseurs judge their restaurants in all sorts of finicky, hypersensitive ways. They focus obsessively on the quality of the rice (soft is good, too soft is bad), or the texture of the tamago egg sushi (too sweet is very bad), or even the color of the gari ginger (pink gari is the kiss of death). For the non-connoisseur, however, the simplest way to judge the popularity, and even the quality, of a topflight sushi restaurant in the city is by the number of serious-faced gentlemen in neatly pressed shirts twiddling their smartphones at the bar. Forget about Kobe beef and the $120 prime rib for two. For the new, postmillennial generation of financial titans and Internet billionaires, raw fish is the ultimate trophy food. It won’t give you a heart attack. It’s loaded with subtle snob appeal. If cash is no object, as the high-roller habitués of restaurants like Masa in the Time Warner Center and Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo will tell you, there’s no more theatrical, cosmopolitan meal in the world.
Like their beef-loving forebears, members of the sushi power elite tend to travel in packs and dine in the same rotation of trusted, ridiculously expensive establishments again and again. But lately I’ve noticed more and more of them congregating at an unassuming sushi restaurant called Neta, which opened last month among the scruffy bars and cut-rate West Village shoe stores along 8th Street near Sixth Avenue. In the tradition of discreetly ambitious sushiyas everywhere, the façade of the storefront space is painted in black trim and covered in pale curtains. There are a few tables set along the walls inside, but most of the narrow, railroad-car-size space is taken up by the bar, which is made of polished ebony. Aside from a random vase of cherry blossoms in the corner, the gray-shaded room is so devoid of artifice and decoration that one of my guests compared it to a “corporate test kitchen” in the suburbs of New Jersey.
You won’t find giant-mushroom-and-rice rolls feathered with shavings of black Périgord truffle at any of the test kitchens in Jersey, however, or dabs of rose-colored tuna tartare, which the two young chefs at Neta serve in a little cocktail glass piled with Beluga caviar spooned from a sky-blue tin. Nik Kim and Jimmy Lau are protégés of the great boom-era sushi godhead Masa Takayama, whose clients at Masa famously fork over $1,000 (before tax, tip, and a drink) to nibble on slabs of foie gras shabu-shabu and iridescent shreds of female snow crab flown in, at vast expense, from the Sea of Japan. Kim worked under Takayama in Los Angeles and was the head chef at Masa when the restaurant opened in New York in 2004. Lau is a veteran of Masa’s other Time Warner Center offshoot, Bar Masa, and he and Kim have clearly designed Neta (the name means “fresh ingredient” in Japanese) as a more casual, Zen-like alternative to the old mother ship uptown.
Most of the fish on the relatively spare sushi list at Neta come from “local” waters (around the U.S.), one of the sushi chefs told me, and unlike in more traditional restaurants, the menu contains an entire sushi-roll section devoted to vegetables. I preferred the generously portioned grilled-maitake-mushroom roll, scattered with black truffle ($19), to the cocktail glass of caviar and toro tartare, which cost $48 and disappeared in two bites. The first small-plate items we sampled included sections of sweet Maine scallop dressed with uni, garlic, and soy butter ($18); shreds of Dungeness crab tossed with wild parsley ($18); and wraps of crispy duck skin and foie gras folded in thin slices of cucumber, which tasted more of duck than of foie gras ($19). But none of these dutifully executed dishes are as satisfying as a simple serving of trumpet mushrooms, which the chefs sauté in round slices, then stack between thatches of thinly crisped potatoes spiced with serrano peppers. Bluefin tuna is the filet mignon of the sushi jet set these days, and there are four different cuts of this endangered delicacy available at Neta, ranging from chewy, faintly charred suji sinew, cut from the collar of the fish, to smooth, soapy-colored strips of fatty o-toro belly ($12), which dissolve in a decadent slick of richness as they slip down the back of your throat. My sushi-loving high-roller friend thought the rice under his pearly, $6 piece of hotate (scallop) was “just this side of gummy,” but he had no complaints about the pink sarawa (mackerel), which the chefs gently lacquer with soy or ice-cool dabs of uni flown in to the restaurant daily. If you don’t feel like forking over $28 for the signature, bluefin-rich Neta roll, I suggest the more cost-effective vegetable rolls, which the chefs stuff with shaved spears of asparagus, fried shiitake, or chunks of sweet potato garnished with shiso leaves frizzled in a tempura batter.
Neta doesn’t offer the wildly esoteric range of sushi and sashimi that you’ll find at some of the grander, more established sushi palaces (no grilled fugu intestines, no rare species of needlefish), and at this early date, the atmosphere can be disrupted by occasional glitches in service. You can sip eight varieties of sake while waiting for your next course to arrive, however, along with a decent selection of “reserve” beers from Sapporo and Prague. If you feel like splurging, there are two omakase dining options available ($95 and $135), and you can wash them down with a $400 bottle of ’02 Dom Pérignon Champagne. The only dessert is a simple iced granita. You can get it flavored with fresh grapefruit, and it’s served the way Masa does uptown, in a tiny cocktail glass with a little bamboo spoon.
61 W. 8th St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 212-505-2610
Hours: Monday through Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m.
Prices: Small plates, $5 to $48; sushi and sashimi, $3 to $28.
Ideal Meal: Dungeness crab, king mushrooms, Spanish mackerel, uni, o-toro, grilled-maitake roll with black truffles, spicy salmon canapé roll, grapefruit granita.
Note: The Chef’s Choice omakase is $95; the high-roller option, at $135, includes caviar and uni.
Scratchpad: Three stars for the ingredients, quality, and technique, minus a star for the slightly rushed service and spartan surroundings.