“I could reach deep into a heady broth of adjectives to describe the magic of the sushi at Masa,” Times critic Frank Bruni wrote in his mid-aughts review of the temple to black Amex cards. Instead, he simply described his companion’s poker-tell facial twitches after consuming an obscenely delicious toro roll.
I recount that anecdote because I could reach into a dank swamp of pejoratives to portray the awfulness of what Masa Takayama is passing off as sushi at his more casual Tribeca restaurant Tetsu. I won’t. I’m just going to tell you how disappointing it can be.
The waiter puts a slice of sea bass nigiri ($11) in front of me. It is dry and unseasoned. I place it in my mouth and start to chew. And then I stop chewing, because a bone is lodged in the middle of the flesh. I don’t mind munching through a little pinbone in a whole fish every now and then; the specimen in question at Tetsu, however, had the texture of a fingernail. This has never happened to me at any sushi spot, ever.
Masa and Tetsu are very different venues. Dinner for two at Masa can easily scratch at $1,800, making it likely the most expensive restaurant in the country. Tetsu, whose debut was plugged on Late Night with Seth Meyers, is cheaper; many dishes are under $10. Masa is a dedicated sushi restaurant. Tetsu is an a la carte robatayaki, a place where cooks (expertly) singe skewered meats over a charcoal grill.
But here’s the thing. There is no shortage of approachable Japanese grill spots in New York. Great sushi that doesn’t cost a ton is tougher to come by. So when the country’s only three Michelin-starred sushi chef packs half the menu with precisely that product, it would be reasonable to assume he can serve it well, regardless of the price.
So I order some nigiri. This prompts the waiter to ask whether I’d like to add a mound of fresh wasabi for $12. It’s a heck of an upsell since most sushi comes with a little dot of spicy root, just enough to perk up the palate, or a little side of it. Here, that bit of seasoning is almost undetectable.
Would I have to pay extra for soy sauce as well? No, which a good thing because most of the nigiri here have almost no seasoning at all — no brushes of tamari, no gratings yuzu zest, or Maldon flakes. The rice might sparkle with the tang of vinegar, all the better to cut through the fat of toro, but later that same hour it might evoke a flabby Chardonnay, with no acid backbone at all. The grains themselves range from room temperature to barely cool, with none of the warmth that can release the gentle aromas of the fish. And the texture of the rice is occasionally so limp that one wonders whether the chefs were trying to make mochi.
A $16 piece of toro and uni came wrapped in a slice of nori that had the mouthfeel of wet cabbage; it should be crisp. A toro handroll, by contrast, boasted a firmer wrapper, a counterpoint to the bland mash of rice and fish within it. A cut of Australian Wagyu had all the depth of flavor of soy protein. A slice of toro is seared medium well; one could find jarred tuna with more flavor.
Good sushi is about craft, consistency, curation, alchemy, knifework. Sushi at Tetsu is raw fish over rice, the proverbial equivalent of a fig on a plate, albeit a not very good fig. It isn’t cooking as much as it is assembly.
One does not expect a more casual version of a fine dining chef’s food to be just as good as the original, but a recent dinner for one at Tetsu — 13 pieces of sushi, two hand rolls, two skewers, two beers — ran $250 after tax and tip. A diner could spend less on an entire stunning sushi omakase at Shuko, staffed by Masa alums no less. So even though Tetsu runs a fine robatayaki, I’m rating its sushi program, sampled over two separate visits, a SELL.
P.S. The $12 wasabi is pretty great. But maybe build that into the price of a meal?
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).