One of the modern truths of New York gastronomy is that eating expensive sushi means witnessing the wealthy carry out their extravagant existences. At Masa, I watched a party of four wolf down $700 worth of wagyu in a minute. “You’ll be able to pay for a year’s worth of flights with the points from this meal,” one of them said to the man stuck with the check. At Ichimura, I saw a group of tourists ignore the fragile nigiri the chef was serving them, letting two or more pieces collect on their plates as they tapped away on their phones. And at Zo, two guys sitting nearby insisted on taking care of our $650 bill. After they did (thank you!), they encouraged us to defraud our company by expensing the dinner anyway.
It’s with these absurdities in mind that one considers Noda in Flatiron and Noz on the Upper East Side. Both rank among the city’s buzziest and most excellent new sushi joints. Both tout traditional edomae services, serving aged raw fish over warm rice, one piece at a time, brushed with little more than nikiri (reduced soy) or maybe a quick grate of yuzu zest. Like some of their peers, both traffic in deliciously predictable, flown-in-from-Japan luxuries, heaping on piles of depleted bluefin as if this were some kind of all-you-can-eat buffet for endangered-species.
And at either venue, you’re liable to encounter an increasingly ubiquitous modern character, satirized on Billions. I dub him the Sushi Bro. He does very well for himself. He’ll tell you about every sushi spot he’s ever dined at. And since you’re all stuck at the same counter, he is having dinner with you, whether you like it or not.
Shortly after he kicked off his omakase at Noda last week, a man in a gray suit emitted a subtle “wow” as he ate his silky chawanmushi with uni and caviar. It’s possible I did the same. The white pudding was stunning, enrobing the tongue with its fats and softening the briny blow of the urchin. A few minutes later, as I was contemplating a nori-wrapped scallop, the shellfish sugars juxtaposed against the coastal-breeze tautness of the seaweed, that same guy exclaimed, “Wow, they nailed that.” He went on with these audible platitudes throughout the meal, in the vein of a sports fan yelling athletic gobbledygook at the nearest flat-screen television.
Thing is, we weren’t at the ESPN Zone. We were at a restaurant where two hours of (mostly) spectacular sushi runs $340 after tip. At this tight chef’s counter, lilliputian portions of fish can require closed eyes and mental zen to appreciate their subtleties. As I placed a single bite of o-toro nigiri, a plump slice of fat-oozing tuna belly, into my mouth, my seatmate leaned over and said, “Isn’t that great?” And my concentration was broken.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this type of bro-ish behavior at a sushi bar, nor will it be the last.
No other dinner format so reliably packs as many rich type-A folks behind a well-sanded bar and pours them $30 glasses of sake. And no other exorbitant dinner format has grown with the frenzy of sushi since the economic recovery began a decade ago. Over the past five years, New York has seen the debut of at least 10 $300-plus omakase spots, easily outpacing the openings of Western-leaning tasting-menu venues or rococo chophouses. They rank among the power restaurants of choice in 2019, due in no small part to the fact that they convey luxury more quickly than a Gallic tasting, more nimbly than a gut-busting bastion of beef, and often more discreetly than anywhere, thanks to tiny, windowless spaces.
That element of mystery abides at Noda. Its owners include Justin Hauser, who used to work for Related, the firm behind Hudson Yards, and David Hess, whose family founded the namesake multibillion-dollar energy corporation. (The duo also run the fast-casual Bondi Sushi next door, where lunch costs less a cocktail at Noda.)
Patrons enter by walking into an anonymous office building, past an unmarked door, and into a purple-hued lounge, a posh holding pen that designer Ken Fulk, using the backwards tropes of Orientalism, once described as a “James Bond opium den.” A host pulls back a curtain and escorts everyone to the semi-circular bar, flanked by 10 pink velvet stools. The space more closely recalls an avant-garde cocktail parlor than a traditional sushi spot.
Tsunoda, late of Tokyo’s Sushi Iwa, stands behind the counter, wielding a foot-long knife. He and his team cut knobs of sweet potato into little squares, to pair with earthy lotus root soup. He slices abalone as if it were quartz, letting the jagged edges marinate in a pool of its own juices; the umami-packed one-biter tastes like a brilliant cross between chicken liver and anchovy water.
And then comes the nigiri sushi, distinguished by its otherworldly rice. Once upon a time, nigiri constituted a quick form of preservation. Vinegar, accordingly, is common at any given sushi spot. What sets Noda apart is a more aggressive seasoning level; the tart rice zings the tongue like one of those high-acid salads at Wildair.
That vinegar adds a touch of punch to golden eye snapper or yellowtail, two cuts that turn out a bit mushy. It also helps tame the musk of Hokkaido uni, whose tidal aroma lingers for a full minute after consumption. And it adds a dose of balance to exceedingly fatty bluefin. The chef slices this breed thicker than others. It doesn’t so much melt as bounce with a supple springiness. But when the fishy oils start to overwhelm, the acid kicks in to lend a proper dose of pucker.
If only the nigiri courses included a wider variety of fish. And if only my enjoyment of the o-toro wasn’t interrupted by bro-man next to me. Yeah, that sounds nitpicky, but think of it this way: A diner gets about 23 bites of steak with a rib-eye, but just a single two-inch bite of any particular fish at a sushi spot. It’s as if someone tried to chat with you during the key plot twist of Jordan Peele’s Us at the movies. You don’t get to hit rewind. Then again, that moment faded a bit when Tsunoda sliced a single bite of tamago. The yellow rectangle dissolved into a pool of custard when consumed, giving off the seafaring scent of gray shrimp. All of a sudden I couldn’t hear anything else around me.
If Noda has the air of a dinner party, letting cordial cocktail conversations carry over into the sushi bar, the omakase at Sushi Noz, owned by brothers David and Joshua Foulquier, channels a more formal ballet. The restaurant’s website likens the restaurant to a Kyoto temple, though the chef has also compared his nightly meals, which start at $325, to Kabuki theater. It is performance before a rapt audience. It is meant to be transportive; the restaurant imported over 1,000 pieces of wood from Japan, including the 200-year-old hinoki wood counter. Servers wear full kimonos with slippers.
Each of the eight patrons remains silent as the chef, a native of Hokkaido, greets every diner with a bow. When he starts to prep — lacing his rice with pungent vinegar, grilling eel over coal and bamboo leaves, or dismembering a live king crab while it’s staring at you — the level of diner chatter rarely rises above a whisper.
The gently poached crab, almost as light as cotton candy, is spectacular, faintly oceanic at the edges and uniformly sweet within. And for those who think crab is too sugary by itself, anchovy dipping sauce with shiso flowers infuses the meat with the brine of 10 waves. Abe then walks past the diners with a few slices of bonito under a cloudy glass dome. He decloches the platter (ta-da!), filling the room with the scent of smoked hay. The fish itself sports the fragile density of Jell-O, with its skin disintegrating like burnt marshmallow.
Sushi chefs sometimes like to sate the diner immediately with fat, beginning with a slice of tuna. Abe instead commenced the nigiri course with humble squid. He doesn’t cross-hatch it like some, or jazz it up with citrus like others. He simply presents it as a slick study in the color white — wearing an invisible cloak of sweet soy. The cephalopod gives a bit of resistance at first, like an MSG-laced gourmet rubber band, then quickly tenderizes, flaunting a starchy creaminess. The rice, while still distinctly tangy, is a touch less vinegared than at Noda. It is more “one” with the fish, rather than distinct.
As at Noda, though, the meal overall was technically masterful but left me craving more textural revelations, more varieties of seafood. Dinner quickly devolves into the four bluefin of the apocalypse: marinated akami (nearly dissolves on the tongue), medium fatty chu-toro (luscious and chewy), fatty o-toro (I’ll let you guess what happened), and charcoal-singed cheek (overcooked and bland).
Sustainability issues notwithstanding, there’s something depressingly uniform about having to make one’s way through the same four slices of tuna — or five, if you count the inevitable toro hand roll — at a fancy omakase spot, sometimes taking up nearly half the nigiri portion of the meal. That’s not to be disrespectful of the craft; part of the bliss of sushi is akin to the joy of watching Shakespeare, seeing the same stories tweaked ever so gently by different directors.
But to continue the metaphor: Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays, and Abe and Tsunoda — and some of their peers — seem to follow this one particular bluefin script just a little too closely. These practices recall the modern crutch of a Western tasting-menu venue, where so many meals finish with that same hunk of wagyu.
Still, I’ll enjoy my o-toro. Or I’ll try. As I’m halfway into my single bite at Noz, the guy next to me — it’s always a guy — decided to ask me “why I eat sushi like that,” as if I could, mid-chew, impart him with some sort of cultural wisdom about how I use my hands to place a piece of food into my mouth. I’d tell you what he was referring to, but that would give credence to a sentient blue blazer watching the way I eat and then interrupting me. Alas, this is sushi in New York.