When contemplating the indulgences of Shuko, from the marbled Wagyu to the luscious toro, it would be remiss to overlook one of the restaurant’s chief luxuries: the bar. And I don’t mean the cocktails, which are stunning. I mean the bar itself. "Every morning I come to work and I sand it down," chef and owner Nick Kim tells me. He forged the C-shaped counter from unfinished tamo, a type of Japanese ash used in Taylor-brand acoustic guitars. It evokes the the soft hinoki wood found at Masa, where Kim worked as head sushi chef in the mid-aughts. "It's one solid tree that we butterflied," Kim says. "The surface that you're touching is the middle of the tree." Sexy.
When you’re in between bites of Santa Barbara uni, instead of checking your iPhone, you find yourself rubbing the silky counter back and forth. The sensation is electric. It's not dissimilar from the tactile high you get when picking up a light-as-air Zalto stem, the only wine glass you’ll encounter in this dimly lit abode just south of Union Square.
Kim and his co-chef and co-owner, Jimmy Lau, have come a long way from Neta, their old 8th Street hangout where neither the brightly lit space nor the uneven food (early on, at least), matched the prices they were charging. Here, you know where your dough is going. That's good because Shuko isn’t just one of New York’s most exciting new Japanese restaurants — it’s one of the most expensive ones as well.
The kaiseki menu runs $175, while a shorter sushi-only omakase costs $135. Either way, the first course is a stunner: two bites of homemade mochi, with pistachio miso and shiso. The taste is akin to putting a Michelin-starred piece of nut and mint-flavored Bubblicious in your mouth, a squishy, savory dessert at the beginning of the meal. Three hours later you and your date are eating a slice of apple pie, $500 poorer, and none the worse off. But since the price tag is as high as it is, here are here are five things you need to know before you spend you hard-earned cash at Shuko.
1. Do the kaiseki menu on your first visit
The math is simple; the $135 omakase involves 20 pieces of sushi, while the kaiseki, for only $40 more, includes eight composed courses plus 17 pieces of sushi. Shuko's kitchen treats its ingredients with a delicate hand. The chefs amp up the natural sweetness of Dungeness crab with a hint of bonito-infused soy vinegar, while keeping the sugars in check with cucumber and chrysanthemum. Firm Chinese schrenckii caviar acts as a very expensive salt for a mound of toro tartare. And squab breast, walking that tightrope between livery and gamy, gets its natural umami essence amplified through a simple yet intense sauce reduced from the bird's bones. Getting full? Well here comes the sushi. So if you've got the scratch for a second visit, do the cheaper menu to save more stomach space for raw fish over rice.
2. Expect non-traditional sashimi
Unlike the two Michelin-starred Ichimura, which begins most meals with a sashimi course to whet the palate (and to show off the chef's knife skills), Shuko does something a little bit different: Kim throws in pieces of raw fish throughout the sushi portion of the meal. So before a slice of giant clam over rice, he’ll serve it plain first, to let you appreciate the mollusk’s intoxicating cucumber crunch. He’ll give you a spoonful of uni from "in between Santa Barbara and Monterey Bay," so you can better discern its concentrated kinship with Maine urchin. Got it? Now you're ready for the orange roe over rice.
This is all somewhat atypical, as a sushi course often consists of sushi and nothing else. Shuko trades in gentle aberrations. If the palate starts to feel overwhelmed after a slice of creamy sawawa or fatty ocean trout, Lau might toss over a slice of vinegared cucumber, or a knob of daikon. It makes you want to eat more. And like at Masa, the final piece before dessert is pickled lotus root wrapped around shiso; it awakens your senses before the sweets appear.
3. Don’t come for tons of tuna
Kim hands you a slice of o-toro over rice. Pick it up, let the fat melt slowly on your tongue, and then wait for that irony oceanic tang, which hangs around on the palate for a good 30 seconds after swallowing. This is the beef of the sea. Enjoy that bite, because there’s not a lot of it here. Instead of the tuna-paloozas that are common elsewhere (Ichimura is famous for stacking up to three slices on a single piece of rice), Shuko often only serves about two pieces of the meaty delicacy as part of the $135 menu, or three if you count the excellent sinew, which Kim grills over the binchotan and places in a hammock of nori. The texture is pure foie gras. Fat will dribble down your chin. For those with environmental qualms about eating too much bluefin: Shuko gets much of its fish from sustainable farmed raised fish in Spain.
With less tuna comes more room to enjoy Shuko's more aggressively-flavored cuts
With less tuna comes more room to enjoy Shuko's more aggressively-flavored cuts —Kim is a fiend for mollusks. If that giant clam crunches like a snappy, watery vegetable, then the gently funky orange clam slowly builds on your tongue like a tidal pool of moss. And slithery manila clams hit your palate with the metals and brine of a Blue Point oyster.
4. Be prepared for heat
Remember that luscious toro sinew? Kim sprinkles a few Thai bird chiles on top. They are incendiary. He cuts a mash of ocean trout with sansho and Sichuan peppercorns and does the same with maitake mushrooms over crispy rice, an epic mix of earthy fungi and lingering heat. As more traditional sushi (and fine dining chefs) needlessly keep the Scoville meter in check, Shuko likes to lay it on hot.
5. The one downside is the rice
On my visits, Nick and Lau didn't quite keep their rice consistently firm. The grains here don’t always roll around on the tongue as they should, like balls of good caviar, separate and distinct. Sometimes they mush too easily. Sometimes they lack enough vinegar. Sometimes they’re topped with just a hint too much wasabi. And sometimes they’re perfect. This is not a minor issue, but still, you’re able to overlook this technical qualm when you’re eating such thought provoking preparations with pristine fish.
As the meal winds down one night, I ask Kim about his work at Masa. He quips that if not for his time there, he'd still be sanding the sushi bar somewhere, temporarily forgetting that's exactly what he does at Shuko every day, and that his restaurant is entirely better because of it.
Cost: $135 sushi tasting; $175 kaiseki.
Sample dishes: Homemade mochi with pistachio miso, steamed crab with bonito-infused soy vinegar, toro sinew sushi with Thai bird chilis, sea bream sushi with pickled plum.
Bonus tip: One wagyu supplement ($50) is enough for two.