The opening of accomplished newcomer Nami Nori has come at a time when budget sushi would benefit from some retooling. Since sushi became democratized in the last decade of the 20th century, the cost has zoomed upward, partly propelled by the accelerating scarcity of the highest quality fish. At middling Japanese restaurants, it’s become common to pay $75 for eight pieces of sushi and a maki roll, and over $100 for an omakase — a menu option that became ubiquitous after the 2004 debut of Masa, where the then-$500 price tag caused jaws to drop. (It’s now $595.) These days, paying $200 or $300 is common at a raft of new places that confine themselves to sushi. But who can afford it?
Lately, though, lower priced vehicles for raw fish have materialized, and I don’t mean sushi’s disturbing appearance in chain drugstores. There’s places like Sugarfish, which offers bargain and partly sustainable meals of high quality with a pedestrian fish selection, and a bowl of poke can be purchased for $20 or less, another way of merchandising seafood at a bargain. Maki carryouts also now offer small morsels of fish wrapped in dried laver, something Korean storefronts in Queens had been doing for some time.
Enter Nami Nori, which has transformed the temaki into a newfangled concoction shaped like a taco. Founded by Masa veterans Taka Sakaeda, Jihan Lee, and Lisa Limb, the restaurant is located on Carmine Street, a thoroughfare rapidly becoming one of the city’s most interesting dining destinations. All blond woods and bare bricks painted white, the 40-seat room is stylishly bright and airy. Two sushi bars are flanked by traditional sushi bar seating. There are tables, too, but these are not nearly as much fun.
In opposition to the Sugarfish model, Nami Nori’s output is produced as you watch by a cadre of sushi chefs who turn out the unique hand rolls made here. Well, they’re not really roll-shaped, as temaki usually are. Their version is made by laying down a small sheet of nori, loading it with a wad of rice and piling the raw fish on top. As the sushi chef tucks the assemblage into a wooden device placed before you, a characteristic “U” shape appears.
Yes, it looks like a Japanese taco, but let’s call it a U-roll instead. These things are quite big, and require two or even three bites to consume. When I went, there were 17 choices, divided into five sections (Signature, Vegan, Primo, Crunchy, and Classic), almost all priced from $5 to $10.
The salmon roll — filled with salmon and tomato, then dotted with chives and smeared with onion cream — was a favorite, with a taste like a summer salad on a breezy day. The same “signature” section has a tuna poke roll topped with crispy shallots that thankfully doesn’t remind one of poke. Instead, it tastes like steak tartare.
Even if you’re not a vegan or a vegetarian, the vegan section is a circus of delights. Best on a first visit was eggplant flavored with red miso and topped with crunchy burdock root. Crunch is an important component of many of the rolls. Other standouts include a California roll with real shredded crabmeat rather than surimi (fake crab), and a yellowtail and scallion roll more subtle than usual. This is one roll where the quality of the fish shines; sometimes flavorings obscure the actual fish at Nami Nori.
Nami Nori even succeeds in transforming the trashy. A spicy dynamite roll that recalls the themed rolls of mediocre sushi bars features tempura crunchies glued to the outside of the dried seaweed, serving to amplify the crunch and tone down the effects of a little too much sauce. Another thing worth mentioning: Because these rolls are created and then delivered instantaneously, the nori itself remains crisp rather than getting soggy.
There are other goodies that aren’t temaki. Most are finger foods like edamame and shishito peppers, though the furikake fries ($7) are almost a meal in themselves. Serrated coins of potato are fried in such a way that they puff up deliciously. They come with a boring sauce that tastes like a cross between ketchup and tonkatsu, so you should spring for the fishy mentaiko mayo ($2) as an additional dip. There’s a salad with buttermilk dressing if you like greenery preceding your sushi.
The demeanor of the sushi chefs is unflaggingly enthusiastic, and this adds to the pleasure of the dining experience. Tap beer, wine, and sake in cans are available, and I recommend the cans. Skip the hot teas, including two preparations of matcha, which don’t marry well with the rolls. An entire meal took about 50 minutes, and the ability of the sushi chefs to make rolls appear at a regular rate is an asset. Waiting too long for your next bite at a sushi bar can be annoying.
The cost of a meal for two with draft beers, fries, 16 rolls, and a snack of tuna-topped rice crackers was $150, including tax and tip. That’s a bargain in a place with an upscale feel that makes you forget that getting you in and out rapidly is one of the aims. We probably ate more sushi than we needed to, because it was so good.