Restaurant review

Nakaji Restaurant Review: Sushi Hideaway in Manhattan’s Chinatown

Try to get a reservation at one of Manhattan’s luxury sushi bars and you’ll never guess the restaurant business is in trouble. As I write this, you have to wait a week to taste one of Shion Uino’s $ 420 omakase meals at 69 Léonard Street. Masa, where lunch and dinner now cost $ 800 per person, is almost full for the next two weeks. AT Sushi Noz, seats at the polished hinoki wood counter, where dinner costs $ 400, and the ash side bar, where it costs $ 225, are almost all sold for next month.

How is it going ? Like cheaper restaurants, elite sushi bars are benefiting from a rebound effect, with customers who stayed at home last year making up for lost time. I also think New Yorkers have realized that something interesting is happening in the high end of the sushi business, as chefs push their craft into increasingly scarce territory. And while other tasting menus can stay the same for months on end, making repeat visits unnecessary, a serious omakase sanctuary’s lineup changes all the time as fish swim in and out of season.

This ebb and flow is a big part of the allure of Nakaji, which opened in March 2020, a few weeks before the city was confined. Not only did it survive this act of bad timing, it has already hiked its prices, which started at $ 165. An omakase meal prepared by Kunihide Nakajima, the chef and owner, now costs $ 225. For the moment, a dispersion of reservations is still available over the next two weeks.

If you know anything about Nakaji, you’ve probably heard that he’s behind a locked door next to a small, easily overlooked sign in an alleyway in Chinatown. Specifically, it is in the covered passage that runs from Elizabeth Street to the Bowery known by Hainanese chicken fans as the home of New West Malaysia.

The entry hints at the almost fetishistic lengths Nakaji takes to act like a discreetly cloistered little sushi-ya in Tokyo. Windows are long horizontal windows so tall you can’t look at unless you’re the Tacko Fall basketball player.

To get to the sushi counter you have to go through a small bar, this is where you will wait if you are early for your reservation. It is not a bad luck. It’s also not a bad idea to visit the bar on a night when you have your fill of omakase. The bar’s short menu of fine snacks includes small plates of sashimi and sushi and an $ 80 sea urchin tasting. (Mr. Nakajima is proud of the license that allows him to place bids online in the Tokyo market where uni is auctioned.) The cocktails are mellow, Japanese-inspired and not overly picky, though the best or perhaps the simplest of all, a highball whiskey dispensed from an elegant device behind the bar that mixes Suntory Toki with supercharged sparkling water in a precise ratio of one to three.

If you are moving on to a full dinner, at some point a blond wood door will open and you will be escorted to one of the 10 leather seats at the sushi counter. Behind the counter is a hand-written wall menu of Tokyo sushi-ya belonging to Mr. Nakajima’s grandfather and a banner of one belonging to his father. He trained himself in Tokyo before coming to New York in his youth and making his way among sushi lovers at Sushiden and Jado Sushi. Mr. Nakajima himself will eventually make his entrance, clip-clopping, a pair of wooden geta on his feet. Since the restaurant reopened in February, he’s also been wearing cloth masks designed by a friend in prints that represent the changing seasons.

This, of course, is the theme of its menus as well. In three meals at Nakaji since May, I only ate a few species more than once, and even then there were significant differences.

In May, when the skipjack swims lean and hungry north to its summer feeding grounds, Mr. Nakajima sliced ​​some of the dense, dark red flesh like sashimi and served it on flake ice with a firm slice of Tokyo Bay octopus. and a crisp tendril of crosse fern.

In July, he had gone to dagger-toothed conger eel, an eel with sharp fangs that grows larger as the mud in which it wriggles heats up. On its rich and rough white flesh, simmered until tender and then chilled, was deposited a salty, sweet and caramel-colored miso sauce.

August brought the ice fish, long, thin, milky white. You might think they were udon noodles if you couldn’t see the two dark staring eyes. They’re served over ice with a wedge of sudachi, the Japanese lime, and a small dish of ponzu, both of which help ward off the bitterness that creeps into the fish this time of year.

And these are just appetizers.

After some such arrangements, Mr. Nakajima moves on to the nigiri part of the menu. An exponent of the purist Edomae school, he does not use a smokehouse or wave a torch spitting flames at his seafood. As sushi suppliers did before the age of refrigeration, he marinates certain fish in soybeans and presses them. ‘others under kelp leaves. Her nigiri is adorned with nothing more than a wasabi sparkle and a quick wash of tare.

There may be several Hokkaido scallops, each no larger than your fingertip, held together by a strip of nori. Or kuromutsu, the Japanese blue fish, with its rich flesh and purplish hue. Or sagoshi, as the Spanish mackerel is called when it is young and its flesh still has a sweet flavor and a pale blush.

A style of sushi, widespread in Los Angeles and represented in New York by Sushi Zo, is marked by long ribbons draped with soft, melting fish. This is roughly the opposite of Mr. Nakajima’s approach. He often carves fish into thick, squat tiles. Some slices are quite tender, but generally softness is not its goal. As you move through the nigiri segment of the meal, you eat chunks that could best be described as crisp, others that you could say almost crunchy, a few that start out quite tense before relaxing into a richness. warm, and some that stay firm and mellow almost to the end.

Accentuating this effect, Mr. Nakajima often serves colder fish than many other chefs would. Some sushi connoisseurs will see this as a flaw. I don’t, but I have to admit that a few pieces at Nakaji almost made our teeth cringe. And the cold can exacerbate a light chalky that sometimes creeps into the rice.

The sea urchin may be the only constant on Mr. Nakajima’s menus, and even that is changing. One night he may have a plain brackish and assertive bafun from Rishiri Island in the far north of Japan; another night he will serve a sweet and delicate uni murasaki from Miyagi Prefecture, closer to Tokyo.

His starting shot is usually anago, sea eel – he’s an expert in eel, which he prepares according to his grandfather’s formula – followed by a very simple dessert, like slices. of cold watermelon with sea salt and a squirt of yuzu or a scoop of black sugar-based ice cream similar to Okinawan molasses. At this point, if you have any money left in your name, you can head back to the bar in the next room and have fun with what must be the most comprehensive collection of Japanese whiskeys in town, including the rarest one. that you can drink for $ 300 an ounce.

What the stars mean Due to the pandemic, restaurants are not receiving stars.

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