In a city where fancy omakase dinners commonly cost more than $300 and quality sushi has been relegated to the sphere of the ultrawealthy, arguably no man has capitalized more on the need for democratization than Derek Feldman.
Feldman’s restaurant group, Uchū Hospitality, started around four years ago with a six-foot outdoor omakase spot at the Bowery Market called Sushi on Jones, a pared-down, rapid-fire omakase served to diners out of a shack-like kitchen. Even today, diners pay just $58 for a 12-course meal. Within a year, he partnered with the renowned sushi chef Eiji Ichimura for the group’s flagship restaurant, Uchū, signaling his intent to compete with the city’s most elite sushi restaurants, too.
With three Sushi on Jones outposts up and running and three more set to open soon — plus plans for three entirely new concepts — Feldman has quickly become one of New York’s premiere Japanese-restaurant empire builders. He’s someone who cares about quality and technique, according to Ichimura, who says that they share a penchant for “new and innovative styles that are deeply rooted in tradition.” Even in a city with no shortage of acclaimed Japanese restaurants run by both Japanese immigrants and Americans, Uchū has demonstrated a knack for packaging high-end Japanese food trends for a wider New York audience.
Working in the restaurant industry was not one of Feldman’s original goals. After studying sports management in college, he took a job in the field, though it “really didn’t feel like [his] passion,” he says. A few weeks after his start date, he fell seriously ill and ended up hospitalized for months. The bout of illness, later diagnosed as celiac disease, was a wake-up call, he says, which ultimately took him to Japan.
Feldman grew up in Great Neck, New York, where his experience with Japanese food had been largely limited to a local restaurant that trafficked in dishes like spicy tuna and California rolls, he says. On his first night in Tokyo, he “had some of the best sushi of my life.” Nearly as remarkable, he thought, was the cost: It was extremely reasonably priced. The ethos of timed train-station omakase meals and the inexpensive restaurants that once surrounded the Tsukiji Fish Market — which emphasized speed and affordability without compromising quality — made such a profound impression on him that he vowed to bring the style home. “That’s something I’d never seen in New York, to get quality like that at a low price point,” he says.
In 2016, he launched Sushi on Jones, and less than a year later, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells declared it his favorite “bare-bones” sushi spot in the city. By 2017, he had convinced Ichimura to join him at Uchū — a “huge, huge, huge honor,” says Feldman, who’d only been in the industry for a year when their collaboration began. “He took a big risk, coming and working with me.”
As a non-Japanese restaurateur working with Japanese food, Feldman says he tries to develop relationships with people before getting into business — with Ichimura, he says, “the first time we met, we hit it off” — which is how the partnership on Uchū came together.
“I felt very comfortable with Derek; he was warm, welcoming, and deeply respectful,” Ichimura says. “I felt inspired to create.”
Feldman’s path to success hasn’t been completely seamless. He dissolved his partnership with David Bouhadana, the founding chef of Sushi on Jones — who came under fire for speaking English in a fake Japanese accent during service — after less than a year of working together. The accent controversy came to light after the two split, Feldman noted, without saying whether it was a factor in the decision. “I was very young. I was very new to this,” he says. “And I’ve learned a lot over the past few years about what it really takes to build the right culture and the right experience.”
Feldman also opened and closed Don Wagyu, which debuted in FiDi in 2018 to hop on an Instagram frenzy for luxurious wagyu sandwiches; its $180 take on the trend was widely panned. He stands by the pricing (“our cost is our cost, and we really couldn’t serve it for any cheaper,” he says), and he hasn’t given up on the idea: He’s opening a new location in the Gotham West Market later this month.
Despite the biting headlines about its prices and closure, Don Wagyu is revealing of the savviest move in Uchū Hospitality’s playbook: bringing popular aspects of Japanese dining to New York. Within the next year, Uchū will open three new Sushi on Jones outposts — one in Williamsburg, one adjacent to the new Don Wagyu at Gotham West Market, and one in London. The group recently opened another location, at Urbanspace Vanderbilt in Midtown.
Uchū also plans to open several other restaurants: a pop-up tea bar at the Bowery Market in partnership with Kettl, a company that focuses on Japanese tea; a cocktail bar and lounge helmed by famed bartender Shingo Gokan and Employees Only co-owner Steve Schneider in the West Village; a cocktail omakase setup inside of Uchū called Gokan at Uchū, also by Gokan; and an unnamed French restaurant in downtown Manhattan.
All this is possible in part due to new investment. Feldman declined to disclose the sources, though he says they’re “top hospitality investors” that put the company in a “very strong financial position for expansion.”
“Our goal with Uchū Hospitality is to deliver the culture, food, and values from Japan — and more countries to come — at the same top level of care and quality,” Feldman says, “and in doing so gather people together around a table for a memorable meal.”
Maya Rajamani is a Brooklyn-based journalist whose work has been published by outlets including DNAinfo New York, amNewYork, NBC New York, and the Real Deal.