One of the fastest growing segments of the restaurant industry has been chain restaurants imported from Japan: Eager to compete in NYC’s glam restaurant scene, they’ve transported dishes as they’re served abroad and introduced innovations not seen here before. Naoki has become the latest dining brand to test the waters here.
Like Ichiran, it chose a rather obscure piece of real estate, in this case a serpentine Chelsea basement on a side street that had once held Sue Torres’ Mexican restaurant Suenos.
The layout remains the same: a small discreet sign outside, an access route that takes you down a fire escape, emerging into a small kitchen where sashimi is cut and fanciful platters assembled en masse. There are three dining rooms beyond that, featuring lots of pale wooden lattices, banquettes covered in kimono fabrics, and a rock garden in a windowed subterranean enclosure.
Naoki is a first New York branch of a behemoth Japanese chain called Create Restaurant Holdings that owns over 800 establishments in Japan and elsewhere in Asia. It employs a workforce in excess of 25,000. While many of the chain’s restaurants back home are Italian, this first venture in New York City is purely Japanese. It provides an $80 kaiseki meal (with a vegetarian option) that seeks to let Americans see how Japanese people really eat.
This is relatively cheap for a kaiseki that includes multiple courses of sushi, sashimi, a meat or fish main dish, risotto, and other seemingly pricey fare. But in contrast to other kaiseki restaurants around town, with prices that can run $200 or more, it uses factory techniques and chain-sourced ingredients to assemble its offerings. I’ve gone two times to see if one experience there was different from another. On both occasions I enjoyed my meal — which provided more than enough food, but left me wondering, with an all-in price around $120: Was it worth it?
The meal begins with a tour-de-force of eight or nine small dishes that might be amuses at a regular restaurant, served in a wicker basket. On my first visit the quality was uneven, with a sage tempura leaf that might as well have been rubber, but some very nice miniature potato chips and fried eggplant with miso sauce. On a second visit, the whole course seemed fresher, and the highlights included a small cube of homemade tofu with blistering manganji peppers, and a centerpiece of honey-roasted kabocha squash.
The scent of truffle oil hung heavy in the air as the small bowl of soba risotto was delivered to the table. It tasted great, though, with little morsels of seafood in its depths a curl of beet on top to give it color.
As with the first course, the sashimi course mounts a visual attack on the senses, as if an art director had designed it. It comes on a mound of crushed ice on a metal rack, with glistening red maple leaves, yellow barberries, and a slice of watermelon radish that supports a wad of freshly grated wasabi. The list of fish is not in itself impressive, consisting of ahi tuna, seared bonito, salmon, and amberjack. Best of all is a small square bowl with fatty tuna tartare; you’ll wish you had more.
The entrée course is the only one that offers choices, and more were listed on my second visit than on my first. Grilled black cod is the usual boxcar of soy-seared fish, reputedly invented by Nobu, presented with a small green plum. The pan roasted duck breast was a prosaic choice, but a relatively voluminous one. I didn’t try the grilled Chilean sea bass or grilled salmon. Best of all was the sukiyaki, with a choice of regular beef or wagyu ($20 supplement). On the first visit it was grilled tableside, which was a thrill; on the second, after the meat was displayed it was whisked to the kitchen to be cooked. While the wagyu was spectacular, swimming in its thick sweet sauce, the regular beef was plenty fatty enough.
In some ways the sushi — simply presented on a battered metal tray, and only three pieces — was the best course. With pieces blessedly modest in size, this nigiri sushi included medium-fatty bluefin, freshwater eel, and seared beef. No soy sauce was provided because each piece was already perfectly seasoned.
A simple miso soup was the last course, made with a very blond paste with a subtle flavor, and miniature cubes of soft tofu in its depths.
Afterward tea (free) and desserts (four in number, for which there is a charge) are offered, but who has any room left?