This Review was written by Jake:
For over a decade, Chef Daisuke Nakazawa apprenticed under Jiro Ono at Sukiyabashi Jiro, Ono’s three Michelin Star restaurant, in Tokyo. Ono, subject of the 2011 documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” (a must see for all sushi fans), is widely considered the greatest sushi chef in the world. He’s also a painstaking perfectionist, and, as you can imagine, not the easiest person to work for.
At the time “Jiro…” was filmed, Nakazawa was senior apprentice at Sukiyabashi and the main recipient of his mentor’s frequent criticisms. He was scolded often throughout the film—for cutting sushi too thick, not marinating the fish long enough, using too much wasabi, etc. In one scene, Chef Nakazawa confessed that he cried after making his first acceptable tomago (japanese egg custard), after over two-hundred failed attempts.
This sort of bootcamp discipline has served Nakazawa well, however. He’s since moved on, graduated, if you will, and now runs his own restaurant—Sushi Nakazawa—in New York on a quiet block in the west village, where he serves what he calls “New York Style Sushi”. That is, sushi steeped in the Japanese Edomae tradition, using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible. The result is sushi that’s entirely his own, sushi that’s pristine and simple, and as near perfect as you’re likely to find in New York or anywhere else. Clearly, Jiro’s not the only one who dreams of sushi.
From the moment you’re seated at Sushi Nakazawa, everything’s perfectly timed and synchronized. They’ve done this before. It happens like this:
One of the four or five dark-suited waitstaff brings you a steaming towel. You wipe your hands while another waiter takes your drink order. He disappears just as another waiter drops two small dishes on the table—one containing house-pickled ginger, the other an arched towelette which, he explains, is for cleaning your fingertips between courses. You didn’t know eating with your fingers was an option, but you can’t remember the last time your fingertips had a good cleaning, so you give it a try as the waiter walks off, pinching the inchworm-looking towelette with your thumb and forefinger. It’s ice-cold and wet and completely unnecessary, but also addicting, and you can’t stop. Then you taste a small piece of ginger, and it’s sour and spicy and more gingery in that one piece than an entire clump of that red stuff they serve at the sushi bar back home. You look up, and the waiter who took your drink order is back, steeping the tea you ordered in a small glass pot, with a big pair of metal tweezers that look like something from the civil war, something used to bore a musket ball out of a leg. He tweezes out the metal tea strainer when the tea’s perfectly steeped and sets it aside. “For the second steeping” he says. And you nod and smile and fight the urge to clean your fingertips one more time for the hell of it.
As he pours the tea into two porcelain cups, a waitress stops table-side with a wooden tray. On the tray, she explains, are the chef’s accompaniments—fresh wasabi root, yuzu, spicy mustard, two different kinds of large-flake sea salt, and a few others. She asks if there are any fish you don’t like. You tell her no, and she wheels off, with her tray, back to the kitchen.
Two minutes later and she’s back with your first course. Two pieces of nigiri—hay smoked salmon and something else. You don’t remember what. “The chef recommends you eat right to left,” She says, and you nod and proceed left to right because you’re so excited, you forgot which is which. But it doesn’t matter, right or left, it’s still the best sushi you’ve ever had.
It’s the rice that immediately stands out. Not that the fish isn’t good. It is, of course—the best, but so often with sushi, the rice is an afterthought—a cold, starchy, lump under the fish. Not this. It’s warm and fragrant and perfectly sour. The rice comes apart under gentle pressure in your mouth, and you can feel each individual grain across your tongue. The flavors are so balanced, it’s difficult to pick out just one—the fish, the rice, or wasabi. Instead, they come together, forming some new taste, something greater than the sum of its parts. You feel some deep and unused part of your brain kick on—a part never before associated with food or taste, and the sensation is similar, almost, to a pleasant daydream. After just one bite, you realize you’ve never really had sushi before, just raw fish and white rice.
You recall a scene from “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” where Jiro explains that sushi is best served warm, at body temperature, and you now understand why. Flavor goes dormant in the fridge.
As you finish the second piece of nigiri, a waiter whisks away your empty plate, and there’s just enough time to sip your tea and clean your already-clean fingers before the next course arrives.
The rest of the meal carries out at the same pace—swift, but not rushed. There are seven sushi courses in all—nineteen pieces of nigiri and a hand roll. There’s big fin reef squid, Maine scallop, o-toro, akami, snow crab, tiger prawn, a completely boneless unagi, the famed tomago (as pictured in “Jiro…”), and then there’s the Ezo Bafun Uni, a short-spined sea urchin from Hokkaido, Japan, which is the single best bite of food you’ve ever had.
When it’s over, after the tea’s gone and the tab’s paid, you wait by the door while the maitre’d grabs your coat from the closet. You look around a minute, really seeing the place now that the excitement and anticipation are gone. Everything’s black and white and shiny. The sushi bar’s on your left, lit like a stage, with three pairs of swivel-chrome chairs in front, with three pairs of people, all at various points throughout the chef’s omakase. You envy them.
You watch the chefs behind the bar, their heads bowed, working. The bar itself is scrupulously clean, like they’re back there operating, not cutting sushi. The air’s slightly sour, redolent of yuzu and rice vinegar. It’s the way a sushi restaurant ought to smell, and it makes your stomach growl despite the fact you just ate.
The maitre’d returns with your jacket, and you thank her and grab a Nakazawa business card on the way out, like there was a chance you’d forget the name.
It’s cold outside—windy and dark—and you don’t feel like leaving; you feel like going back in and doing it over again—all of it. You know you can’t, though. Your table’s already booked for someone else, and you’ve got other things to think about, like night parking rates and not blowing your rent money on sushi. So you head off down the street, glad it happened, sad it’s over, and bitter because tomorrow you’ll have to eat other things, and some meals make all others taste worse.