NYC: Sushi Nakazawa (Nov. 2013)
Authors: Victor and Monty
Chef: Daisuke Nakazawa
Date: November 10, 2013
Sushi Nakazawa has been getting a lot of rave reviews lately, and it’s probably the most hyped sushi restaurant in NYC at the moment. Daisuke Nakazawa is famous for being “that tamago guy” in the Jiro Dreams of Sushi documentary, and you probably know more than I do about him!
We had to make our reservations a month in advance, so our anticipation of this meal just grew and grew as the weeks passed. A lot of people said it belonged up there with 15 East, Ichimura, and Yasuda, and I wanted to see just how accurate that was. They were similar in price tier, so I was hoping that Nakazawa would be another worthy rival to those places. (15 East and Ichimura are my favorite places outside of Masa, which is just ridiculously expensive, so I was looking forward to having another sushiya to eat at!)
Unfortunately, our experience wasn’t the best. We’ll go through our meal first before delving into what we liked or disliked. (Note: Most of you know, from Yelp and Chowhound reviews, that Chef Nakazawa is a cheerful and talkative guy. I can vouch that that’s correct, and I’ll mostly be talking about the food and meal itself.)
My initial thoughts coming into this place was holy frick frack this is going to be a fantastic meal. I had watched the Jiro documentary and thought it was a cool albeit self-indulgent movie, but I didn’t know who Nakazawa was. I gradually learned of him as Victor and a dozen other friends excitedly talked to me about how Jiro’s apprentice was opening up a shop in New York. “Omg!” they squealed, “Jiro’s apprentice in New York is going to be amazing! All these other critics confirm! You have to go, there’s no way it’s not going to blow your mind!” And so with a smile and wink they all encouraged me to go and so I went, with a sense of wonderment and curiosity.
Chef Nakazawa is preparing his famous tamago for us here.
Monte: It’s a very sleek and well-designed dining space. It’s very elegant and makes you feel like you’re in a classy sophisticated establishment. I thought it was a bit too quiet/stuffy, but I can’t say I wasn’t impressed.
White king salmon from Alaska
Monte: A surprisingly negative start to the meal. Immediately I was sad that the portions were so small. They’re not absurdly tiny, but they’re definitely noticeably smaller than other places such as 15 East (and here there’s a set number of pieces you get, so it’s not like you can ask for more if you’re still hungry). The fish itself had a very pleasant texture, but the flavor of the fish (even subtle flavors) seemed to be absent. The rice itself was at an ok temperature, but didn’t seem to be flavorful either. Usually, I like to be able to taste the vinegar mixed in with the sweet rice, but here both the sweet and tart element was lacking.
Hay-smoked coho/silver salmon from Alaska.
Monte: From all the articles that people had sent me about this place, it seemed people were quite impressed with the hay-smoked pieces. I thought it was interesting, but certainly not worth devoting a whole paragraph of praise to. I’m sure the technique and process of haysmoking fish is quite complicated and delicate, but the flavors were only good – not amazing. It’s a very subtle smokey flavor, with bits of grassy notes that underlined the salmon.
Hotate (scallop) from Maine with yuzu, pepper, and sake sauce.
Victor: Too salty.
Monte: I thought the scallop was quite fresh, but the ratio of fish to rice was just laughable and resulted in an odd texture. With one bite your teeth easily cuts through the soft scallop flesh but then is stopped and has to cut through a couple specks of chewy rice before going through scallop again. It was odd because I’m just used to there being more rice and having a more mixed texture in my mouth, and not having to search for those few grains.
Geoduck from Washington.
Monte: This was called geoduck, but Victor and I suspect it was some other kind of clam. It was kind of bland, though, and with this piece I kind of started feeling disappointed in the meal. The rice portions were just throwing me off, and the slices of seafood were just lacking flavor.
Isaki (grunt / triggerfish) from Long Island, NY, with isaki liver sauce and daikon radish.
Monte: Surprisingly bland, even with the sauce and radish.
Hirame (fluke) from Long Island, NY.
Victor: I realized that Monty was starting to feel pretty disappointed when he sarcastically stated to me, “I believe they’re of the precut technique here.”
Monte: Yes, at this point in time of the meal I started realizing that Nakazawa had assistants who were slicing off a dozen slices of sashimi and then would put them away for another 20 minutes before the fish would reappear on the assembly line to be coupled with the rice. It was rather disappointing to see this mechanistic approach to the sushi, especially in such an already controlled environment with set seatings and set number of pieces. Where’s the craft, and where’s the love?
Also, while I applaud the approach to localism and going for fish in Long Island, I think they lack flavor and perhaps there’s a reason why seafood from there isn’t held in high regard.
Sanma (mackerel pike) from Hokkaido, Japan, with ginger.
Monte: Not an issue with the other pieces, but I think my rice was kind of mushy for this piece. It might have come from the bottom of the barrel, or was just squeezed too hard – there are tons of possibilities at play but bottom line is I couldn’t even pick apart the individual grains apart because it was just mush.
Nine-day-aged saba (mackerel) from Kyushu, Japan, with Japanese mustard.
Monte: This piece was actually genius. The aged saba was still really spectacularly tender while having a very subtle but pleasant cured fishy flavor. The mustard was also in-cred-i-ble. Chef Nakazawa told us that, before wasabi was used, mustard was the chosen condiment for sushi. I’m sure traditional mustard wasn’t as delicious as this stuff though. It was so subtly spicy, earthy, and smokey. Just delightful along with the aged saba.
Shako (mantis shrimp) from Long Island, NY, with sweet sauce.
Monte: This was a giant meaty mantis shrimp! Or the rice lump is just too tiny, and it makes the shrimp look giant.
Aoebi (blue shrimp) from New Caledonia.
Monte: This cooked shrimp was actually giant, small bits of rice aside. I wish the shrimp were a bit sweeter, though. Maybe this shrimp in particular didn’t have enough desserts in its diet.
Shima aji (striped jack) from Mie, Japan.
Victor: I hope the portions of uni and ikura aren’t tiny…
Monte: This piece was quite underwhelming again.
Hamachi (yellowtail) from Hokkaido, Japan.
Monte: I thought this hamachi belly was quite interesting. The tight fibrous texture was quite unlike most melt-in-your-mouth bellys that I’ve had previously.
Hay-smoked skipjack tuna (katsuo) from Kyushu, Japan.
Monte: I hope the next few pieces are better…
Akami (lean tuna) from Boston, MA, with Japanese mustard.
Marinated chūtoro (medium-fatty tuna) from Boston, MA.
Monte: Ehh better but still not up to the quality that I expected. For a big ticket item like this, I expect a flavorgasm. I was left bereft and disappointed
Ōtoro (fatty tuna) from Boston, MA.
Monte: This piece didn’t have as much flavor as the chutoro.
Uni (sea urchin) from Santa Barbara, CA.
Victor: The seaweed was VERY good, and the uni was solid. This was my favorite piece!
Monte: This piece was quite sweet. I’m glad this Santa Barbara uni didn’t disappoint.
Ikura (salmon roe) from Alaska.
Monte: Decent Ikura :). Small Piece :(.
Anago (saltwater eel) from Kyushu, Japan.
Victor: I’ve had better anago at a lot of other places :(. It doesn’t help that it’s nearly winter now…
Monte: This anago was, like half of the other fishes in this meal, a bit bland. There was very little of that salty-sweet meatiness that good anago should have. It was just…small, limpy, and wouldn’t have surprised me if you had told me it was tilapia. Really good tilapia granted, but tilapia shouldn’t even be in the conversation.
Toro (fatty tuna) hand roll.
Monte: The seaweed was pretty fantastic. I liked how crunchy and flavorful it was, the way each bite just yielded a gentle crunch as salty umami just flooded the mouth. I wish I could say the rest of the roll was as memorable as the seaweed. The portion was just too small and the rest of the ingredients got kind of lost in the seaweed.
Victor: I honestly enjoyed this hand roll. I thought the portions were fine. (Then again, I eat faster, and Monte definitely pays more attention to what he’s eating than I do—and he also has a better palate haha.)
Tamago (egg) that was a lot like kasutera/castella.
Victor: The tamago fits into the category of kasutera-style tamago, which are rather different from the dashimaki-style tamago that people might be used to. Amazing sushiya in Tokyo like Sukiyabashi Jiro (both the honten and Roppongi branches) and Sushi Kanesaka have this style of tamago, and 15 East is the one sushiya in NYC that I can think of at the immediate moment that serves this type of tamago.
Monte: Yum. Idk what those 29 grains of rice were doing there…that was awkward for everyone involved. The egg was all “oh let me be the star!” and the rice was all “oh don’t forget about me” and the diner was like “huh wtf” and the egg goes “I’m delicious!” and by that time the rice just kind of disappeared in the void that is our pieholes without so much as leaving a trace of sweet-vinegary goodness. But I did enjoy the egg. The texture was akin to almost a sweet-potato whip, but with a sweetness that is very distinctively “egg custard.”
Wild berry sorbet with blackberry and pomegranate seeds.
Victor: I was kind of amused because Monty said that this was his third favorite piece (after the saba and uni). The sorbet WAS really good, and the pomegranate seeds were kind of an amazing addition. The sorbet wasn’t super smooth, but I think I preferred it being a little rough. The pomegranate seeds added a lot of crunch to everything, which I really enjoyed.
Monte: I was a huge fan of the saba, uni, and this sorbet. Those three things were deeeelicious. The pomegranate seeds added a great pop and tartness to the otherwise sweet sorbet.
Good things first! The fish was generally fresh—there was a generally decent mix of locations from which the fish came from, though I have to admit that I was surprised by how much fish was sourced from the Northeast. The rice was also pretty good; the temperature was good, texture was great, and taste was right. (Monty, however, was disappointed that one of the pieces had mushy rice; I didn’t notice this, but Monty’s palate is superior to mine.) Also, the seaweed was EXCELLENT and was similar to good seaweed I’ve had in Japan.
Regarding the tamago, it was good, but it wasn’t as mind-blowing as Yelpers and others have led me to believe. It reminded me of a castella- or kasutera-style tamago, but it’s also much moister than that style is. It’s kind of hard to explain… Monty will do a better job!
Now we go over the bad stuff! I guess I’m kind of a snob about this, but one thing really bothered me here. Some of the nigiri we had utilized precut fish. The akami, for instance, had been cut about 10 to 15 minutes before. I strongly prefer freshly cut fish, which is something I generally haven’t encountered in my favorite places. (Kyubey in Ginza actually involved fish that had been cut and left to sit out for five minutes, and that already really bothered me…)
Another issue I had with the meal was that the portions were really small. I wasn’t used to how small the nigiri were, and I was left hungry at the end. I was pretty disappointed when they just cleaned up everything without asking me if I wanted more nigiri. I can eat way more than 21 pieces here… However, I should probably add that the two girls we were with thought that the portions were just right. Hmm.
The meal ended up costing about $190 per person, and I honestly don’t think it was worth it. I can go to Ichimura or 15 East for that price, and my overall experiences there have been far better. The rice was generally similar, but I thought that the fish at those places have been fresher and more flavorful. Sushi Nakazawa was good, but I still think it’s a notch below Ichimura and 15 East. However, Chef Nakazawa is still young; maybe he’ll improve the restaurant a lot in the next few months!
Sushi Nakazawa vs. Sukiyabashi Jiro:
Some of you are probably wondering how Sushi Nakazawa compares to Sukiyabashi Jiro. I haven’t been to the main branch, but I’ve had dinner at the Roppongi branch (with the younger son). I enjoyed the sushi there FAR more. The fish was much fresher and more flavorful, the rice was better, and there were some truly spectacular pieces (especially the uni and anago) in that meal. I can’t say the same about this meal, sadly. However, that meal was in TOKYO, and it was also nearly twice as expensive as Sushi Nakazawa, so… that says a lot.
Food is really simple to me and comes down to two things: sustenance and pleasure. Terrible-tasting food that gets you through the day without your stomach growling will have served its most primal purpose, and delicious food that leaves you hungry will at least have given you those moments of happiness. To get a combination of sustenance and deliciousness, I’m willing to pay a considerable sum to feel that sense of content that comes from a belly filled with tasty things.
With that in mind, I feel like Nakazawa cheated me. We’re the consumers in this restaurant, but it really felt like we barely consumed anything. Both of us had to get sandwiches to help us feel full after the meal because each piece of sushi was 1/2-2/3 of the size we’re used to. I get that it’s the internet and it’s easy to say we’re fat boys with gai-jin appetites, but you’re not supposed to pay $190 and feel like there wasn’t enough food. I don’t care how fat of an appetite a diner has, it’s just unreasonable to spend that much and still be hungry.
And I get it – if the food is absolutely mind blowing and each bite makes you melt in your chair a little bit as waves of euphoria wash over, then it might be worth it. But this wasn’t the case here. The rice was decent, but there is definitely room for more flavor. The proportions were all off and it really took a backseat (in the trunk, underneath the spare tire, where no one knows it’s there) to the fish during the meal. Speaking of fish, two of the nigiri truly tasted good – but 2/20 is pretty awful, especially when 15 East or Gari can give you even more food along with 90% of the pieces leaving you with a silly happy smile from how delicious they are.
I should probably also add that work is just so busy, and this meal was something that got me through the week. It was something to look forward to, something that was supposed to be a reward for the long hours. And it just wasn’t rewarding, like I had woken up and worked all those days for nothing.
It was really sad to me that, after all this hype and excitement, Nakazawa was really just a letdown. I feel awful writing this review, and I hope I don’t write too many like this, especially since Chef Nakazawa is such a cheerful and friendly guy. I mean nothing personal by my comments, but people spend a lot of time working hard and saving to be able to eat these special meals so there’s a lot of pressure to deliver on that $190 check. Nakazawa failed for me on this, so I won’t be back and can’t say I’d recommend it to others.