For those who love sushi, the last few years have been tough. Gone are the days when inexpensive places served decent nigiri sushi assortments for $15 or $20, so that now poke burritos and trashy maki rolls — often slathered with spicy mayo and cream cheese — dominate the less-expensive choices. While a high-end sushi feast used to command $100 or so, an omakase at hyped sushi bars now fetches between $200 and $500. And let’s not forget that some species we once gleefully consumed — most notably bluefin tuna — are now teetering on the verge of extinction.
But there’s hope on the horizon. The chains are coming to town. Late last year the LA sushi phenomenon Sugarfish appeared on East 20th Street, peddling bargain sushi assortments priced at $23, $33, and $45 — served two or three pieces at a time with real panache. The set meals partly featured sustainable albacore, a fish virtually unknown here previously (except, paradoxically, in millions of tuna sandwiches). Around the same time Mi-Ne Sushi Totoya with a full Japanese menu came to Greenwich Village, a Japanese chain with branches in Kumamoto and Hong Kong. Their sushi and sashimi assortments were priced at $28 to $40, a real bargain for fine-quality fish. One presumes that the ability to buy in bulk in Japanese markets is partly behind these unexpectedly low prices.
Now, with little fanfare, a new Japanese chain has appeared. Located in the East Village, Uogashi concentrates almost solely on sushi. Its parent organization, according to the greeter one evening, owns a fish wholesaler and several stand-up sushi counters in Tokyo, which explains how the prices at Uogashi can be so low. Sushi assortments run $38 and $45 for nine pieces of nigiri sushi, soup, salad, and a hand roll, or $75 for a more elaborate omakase.
The room is deep, with table seating for 30 or so, as well as discreet curtained booths for two, and at one of the longest sushi counters the city has yet seen, with 25 seats, three sushi chefs, and three hinged wooden boxes for sushi instead the usual curving glass cases. The interior is all white paint and blond woods, with a wall treatment in the rear that looks suspiciously like old-fashioned stucco, and a black ceiling. So far, the staff and customers are overwhelmingly Japanese and seats are available even at peak hours.
I’ve eaten there twice, and sampled all three sushi assortments, and the fish and crustaceans are pristine. The $45 Uogashi sushi begins with a tiny salad in a clear glass bowl and progresses to a miso soup bobbing with slender enoki mushrooms. The sushi course came on a single plate on a banana leaf, and the highlights recently were medium fatty tuna, Japanese sea scallop, and river eel, served warm and burnished in the usual way with sweet soy sauce.
Is the $75 omakase worth the extra expense? Yes, especially if you’re very hungry. Just as the difference between the $38 and $45 sushi assortments lies in a more exotic sequence of fish (the actual quantity was the same), the more expensive omakase dabbles in fish not usually found at a neighborhood sushi joint.
The $75 omakase began with a puck of braised daikon surmounted by a monkfish liver mousse in which a shard of rubbery heart clam was mired. Next came a bowl of chawan mushi egg custard with a tiny wooden spoon. Then the sushi course commenced, on two subsequent plates, each delivered as soon as the sushi chef finished it. The order of fish was as follows: medium fatty bluefin, fluke, mackerel, sea bream, and snow crab legs; lean bluefin, yellowtail, amberjack, gizzard shad, and sea scallop. Next up was the salad of uni and salmon roe with a little rice in the bottom, served in a martini glass. A hand roll followed, featuring fatty bluefin and daikon pickle, with miso soup was the last course, with three littleneck clams in their shells. A cup of green tea at the end of the meal encourages a diner to linger.
For those who’d rather go their own way, fish and shellfish are available by the piece, priced from $4 to $8. The selection includes such exotica as golden-eye snapper, longtooth grouper, and rosy sea bass. A modest choice of beers, wines, and sake are available to wash it down. A few entrees feature raw fish over rice, chirashi style, as well as shrimp and eel tempura, both of which make nice apps on a winter evening. 188 1st Avenue, (212) 253-0626