All this decade chain restaurants from Japan have been helicoptering in and opening branches— often their first United States location — in New York City. Here, despite what must be equally high rents, Japan-born restaurants can still experience tumultuous welcomes, with lines of customers snaking down the block when a place debuts, and sometimes thereafter. Ippudo (ramen) and Tsurutontan (udon) are two examples, while chains like Ootoya (shopper’s cuisine) have shown a slower and steadier growth.
The latest culinary emissary from Japan peddles sushi. Yes, there have been import sushi chains here since at least the 1980s, when bargain-basement Genroku (long since closed) spun some rather uninspiring maki rolls around on a conveyor belt just north of the Empire State Building. On the other end of the cost spectrum, but also located on Fifth Avenue, Sushi Ginza Onodera opened its doors in May, slinging high-end, omakase-only meals. Somewhere in between lies Mi-Ne Sushi Totoya, which opened one month later with much less fanfare.
The company originated in 1971 in Kumamoto, a medium-size city on Kyushu, southernmost of Japan’s principal islands. Seaside Kumamoto enjoys a semi-tropical climate, not to mention being the home of a famous oyster. Four branches in Kumamoto and nine in Hong Kong preceded our New York location, which lies in Greenwich Village at Sixth Avenue and 13th Street. Detailed models of Japanese dishes glow in the front windows, through which you can spot a bar flanked by stools opulently upholstered in white. Along the opposite wall runs a line of tables that leads to the main dining room, which extends the white color scheme. Electric lights hang everywhere and the ceiling is covered in chalky lath.
Behind the sushi bar at the end of the room gyrate three chefs — one in black, two in white. The sushi bar is plush, but the counter’s so high you can’t see what the chefs are doing to the fish. That fish is of exemplary freshness and offered at discount prices compared to restaurants of similar quality, undoubtedly due to the buying power of the chain. Most expensive is an omakase, coming in at $55 for 11 pieces of nigiri sushi and half a maki roll. In one instance that roll featured otoro (fatty tuna, the fanciest type), and the nigiri highlights included a plump scallop lightly seared and surmounted by a face of crunchy lotus root with two preserved-plum eyes; a slice of fatty fluke with a tiny dab of dilled mayo; and a piece of nicely cooked salt water eel.
As if that weren’t enough, the omakase is heralded by an appetizing tour de-force consisting of nine tiny plates arrayed in a square, each with a single salutary biteful. Some involve sashimi, others seaweed, shredded vegetables, roe, or pickles. Later you get a small bowl of chawanmushi custard. This omakase constitutes too much food for one person, and it’s one of the best sushi deals in town. Other equally generous sushi and sushi/sashimi assortments are priced from $28 to $39.99. But the restaurant’s sushi stylings don’t end there.
It’s one of the best sushi deals in town.
In trying to cover all the bases, in addition to hand rolls, maki rolls, and nigiri by the piece, Mi-Ne offers temari ("hand ball") sushi, its fish deposited on buttons of rice, aimed partly at children. As the website notes, "It’s not really a seasonal food, but you can see a lot of temari-zushi in spring, around Girl’s Day (March 3rd) in Japan because temari-zushi is very colorful." Who knew? But some of the menu’s most interesting offerings — which run to a bewildering 170 items — are not sushi at all, but Japanese regional specialties rarely seen in New York City.
From the page devoted to Kyushu cuisine: slices of lotus root tempura ($6.99), the holes oozing tangy Japanese mustard with miso; pork shabu-shabu ($12.99), which invites you to swish raw, lightly smoked bacon in bubbling water before dipping it in ponzu sauce; and, perhaps betraying the proximity of Kyushu to Shanghai, deep-fried shrimp toasts flavored with shiso leaf. Other menu items include tofu made with milk instead of soybean curd, and a broiled tuna collar ($19.99) so massive the restaurant asks it be shared among three or four diners. Miso-marinated black cod (a classic Nobu recipe) and two kinds of poké suggest the owners have carefully examined our city’s current restaurant scene before drafting their bill of fare.
This eclectic approach has its downside, too, especially in a page of maki rolls supposedly invented in America, which might be seen as confirmation of our own bad taste in sushi. Worst is a hire katsu roll ($13.99) in which a thin breaded pork cutlet with the texture of cheap leather is wrapped up, still steaming, in rice, proving nearly impossible to chew. Maybe less deplorable is a black cod roll that puts the aforementioned broiled fish on top of a thick roll stuffed with avocado and pickles — one is well advised to pick the morsels of fish off the top and eat them separately.
Ultimately, though some of the food is uneven and the service somewhat fumbling (as compensation, the tip is included in the already low prices), Mi-Ne is a great place for Japanese food of a diverse nature, or simply as an alternative to sushi bars with considerably higher prices. Expect another branch somewhere else in town before too long.
Cost: Dinner for two, featuring two apps, two sushi assortments, and two cups of tea, including tax and tip, $90
Sample dishes: sushi omakase, pork shabu-shabu, tuna collar, braised cow tongue, monkfish liver, temari sushi.
What to drink: tea or water (free), sake (not a bad selection), or draft beer (Asahi)
Bonus tip: One of the most pleasant ways to order your sushi is as temaki — crunchy, cone-shaped hand rolls mainly priced from $4.99 to $6.99. Two or three make a nice lunch.