And because dinner often begins simultaneously for everyone at chef's table restaurants like Brooklyn Fare or Blanca, I like to think of being on time as an act of personal sacrifice for the collective good. Not that anyone's waiting; show up late and the meal will (justifiably) have started without you. The key, however, is that the enforcement of punctuality shouldn't come at the expense of making people happy. This is the hospitality industry, after all. And that brings us to the case of Nakazawa, an excellent sushi spot that might have fallen on the wrong side of that equation, at least on a recent visit when I was running behind.
Custom dictates that guests arrive at any given restaurant within 15 minutes of a reservation; yet within those first 15 minutes, Nakazawa staffers (and the chef) asked my dining companion about my whereabouts three times. Only after a second location-based query was she offered what most level-headed waiters offer guests when they arrive: a beverage that isn't water. I apologize for my tardiness — due to a duo of broken Citi Bike docks — but really, a restaurant's job is to make a guest feel comfortable — never the opposite.
Some might say I'm nitpicking. I'll counter that when you're spending $500 for two and vying for a reservation a month in advance, you want to feel coddled, not stigmatized, and the more you spend, the more such flaws are magnified. And for what it's worth, I arrived at Nakazawa 16 minutes past the reservation time. Yes, these ignominies were forgotten after we reckoned with raw scallops, as sweet and ethereal as French Îles flottantes. The mollusks were spiked with an aromatic yuzu-chili paste and served over a mound of rice so light it seemed not to exist. Perfect.
When you're spending $500 for two and vying for a reservation a month in advance, you want to feel coddled, not stigmatized.
Then we experienced sake service that ranged from excellent to craptacular. So that's the bad news: Hospitality problems can persist throughout a meal at Nakazawa. The good news is there are few flaws in the fish. Nakazawa is already one of New York's better and more fairly priced sushi spots — no small achievement for a venue that's less than a year old.
You probably know the story. Alessandro Borgognone, the co-owner, is a 33-year-old Staten Islander who used to cook at Patricia's, his family's restaurant in the Bronx. He discovered the 36 year-old Daisuke Nakazawa while watching him in "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," a documentary detailing the painstaking work that goes on behind the scenes at three Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo. Borgognone lured the chef from a posting in Seattle and in August the duo opened Nakazawa in Manhattan's West Village.
It instantly became one of New York's most difficult reservations.
Like at Jiro, Nakazawa serves a single product: Sushi. But unlike Jiro, where dinner is ¥30,000 (~$293 USD), things are a heck of a lot cheaper in New York. The price is $120 if you're dining at one of Nakazawa's 25 dining room seats, with 21 pieces of nigiri served in flights. Those who sit at the gorgeous marble bar will pay $150 for the same meal, with most of the nigiri served one at a time.
What accounts for the $30 price difference? "We're definitely pricing on demand," Borgognone tells me. He correctly asserts that guests (myself included) are willing to pay a premium for the theater of watching Daisuke rip the head off a live spot prawn. "Sayonara time," the chef quips, before personally serving you the glistening crustacean. You pick up it with your hands and eat it; be sure to savor the jelly-like texture as it slide down your throat; this is a maritime gummy worm. Lovely.
Then a waiter tries to pour tap into your sparkling water. Not so lovely.
Of course, sitting at the bar is more than just theater. Sushi is best consumed seconds after it's prepared, with the barely cool (or room temperature) fish being gently heated by the warm, vinegared rice. Borgognone rightly (and politely) admonishes diners who snap iPhone pics of the prepared sushi; there's no photography ban here, he just wants you enjoy the golden eye snapper right after it's blowtorched, with the fishy oils still oozing out like a pat of melting butter on toast.
Eat the toro hand rolls instantly and the nori collapses with less resistance than a good soufflé.
Timing is all the more important with Daisuke's toro hand rolls; eat them instantly and the nori collapses with less resistance than a good soufflé. And while the nori wrapped around sea urchin wasn't as crisp as it should have been, you don't mind the oversight much because the Santa Barbara uni had such a crystal clear musk of the sea I'm halfway convinced Daisuke has figured out how to dry-age the orange roe like steaks.
What makes Nakazawa a satisfyingly uniform experience is that the head chef personally serves everyone at the bar — a pleasure that's less common at, say, Ushiwakamaru, where a ninth string sushi chef making spider rolls for the dining room was charged with preparing my $150 omakase a few years back. And at a recent meal at Tanoshi, which didn't cost too much less than Nakazawa, the backup chef started serving me mid-meal using a separate, somewhat mushier stash of rice. That won't happen here.
There are also no choices at Nakazawa, and that's something to keep in mind. One of the great things about Manhattan's best sushi restaurants is that dinner is often a dialogue, an interaction between the chef, who asks for preferences, and the guest, who lets the kitchen do most of the driving while putting in a few humble requests. At Nakazawa, the meal is monologue. You sit down and the food starts coming, perhaps a slice of banded grouper or sea bream with kumquat zest.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing; I've long been a proponent of no-choice menus at Alinea or Atelier Crenn. The question you have to ask yourself, however, is whether you view Daisuke's take on sushi, which emphasizes the more neutral and subtle flavors of the sea, to be a compelling enough narrative to warrant such restrictions. I'd argue it's more exciting to develop a relationship with a good chef like Masato Shimizu of the Michelin-starred 15 East, who can push you outside of your comfort zone while indulging your preference for say, oily and more strongly-flavored silver fish. In other words, Nakazawa isn't necessarily a great choice for regulars looking for a more bespoke experience.
What also isn't great: When you pick up your first piece of sushi (cherry salmon, served too cold), you discover there's no finger cloth to wipe the remaining rice off your hands — a waiter corrects the oversight a minute or so later after you look around in confusion.
Sake sommeliers sometimes do their jobs; they explain that you're drinking a Junmai Kimoto with nice acid; it matches well with richer fish like the clean horse mackerel or the umami-rich saba. Sometimes the sommeliers don't do their jobs; they pour your pairing, utter an unfamiliar name and and walk away before you can even make eye contact or discuss whether it's to your liking. And for those who'd like to peruse the wine or sake offerings in advance, sorry, there's also no online list.
Borgognone mentioned during a phone interview that diners are free to order more food after the end of the set menu; that courtesy, common at other omakase sushi spots, was never extended to me during my visits at Nakazawa — perhaps it's incumbent upon the diners to ask for a second round, which can be a tough proposition when all of a sudden Daisuke drops your dessert sushi and takes a bow.
It's not what you'd expect from a four-star restaurant, which Nakazawa most definitely is not. Everyone is pleasant enough and and the food is great, but just as punctuality is slightly more complicated than showing up on time, hospitality is more than being nice. It's about the steps of service and getting them right. It's a skill. And here, that skill needs honing.
Photography: Nick Solares