High-end sushi might be about a basic combination of ingredients — fish, rice, and vinegar — but its pleasures aren’t as guaranteed as popping open a caviar tin. The precise ballet of an omakase depends on pacing, timing, and performance art. Take a few pics of your maki roll before taking a bite and the seaweed wrapper could start to go limp. Sit at a table instead of at the bar, and your faintly warm rice, in perfect harmony with a slice of room temperature tuna, might turn cold by the time a server brings it over. Look at your phone instead of at the chef, and you’ll have missed the magic of someone turning translucent needlefish into something that looks like it belongs at Tiffany & Co.
It’s all enough to make one wonder: If a minute’s time can mean the difference between a great piece of nigiri and a merely okay piece, is there any use in spending $150 on raw fish that travels via messenger at frigid temperatures?
Welcome to the world of expensive takeout sushi. Some of it is quite good. Much of it is not.
As COVID-19 continues to keep folks away from restaurants, New York’s booming omakase institutions — venues where a meal involves 12 to 20 individual courses of sushi — are adapting their pricey luxuries to at-home eating. Perhaps the most egregious example was when Masa started hawking $800 raw fish boxes early on in the pandemic, and managed to attract a serious wait list in doing so.
Those exorbitant boxes have since disappeared, but a collection of mid-tier sushi-yas are now selling, alongside more affordable offerings, $100-plus takeout omakases. Among those dabbling in the haute delivery sphere are Nami Nori, a West Village temaki spot that might offer some of the city’s best takeout sushi; Maki Kosaka, a Flatiron restaurant that charges a lot for impressive but imperfect rolls; and Muse, a delivery-only concept that bills itself as “Michelin-star sushi to go,” even though it has not earned such an accolade.
Such offerings raise the question: What type of joy can you feel when a chic venue relocates their omakase from a transportive environment to your tiny studio where the steam heater makes a weird percussive noise every 13 minutes? While indulging in high-end takeout, I experienced serious doses of “Was that really Whole Foods sushi?,” a fishy pill to swallow after having paid oodles for something that looked like it jostled around like a cheap pizza during delivery. The let-down factor is all the more aggravating when it’s not a server guiding you through the ordering process, but a $43 billion delivery industry that’s sometimes trying to change your mind on where to eat in the first place.
That said, there’s also some pretty great takeout sushi out there — if you play your cards right. The key is partially in the packaging.
Whether you spend $28 on a vegan lunch from Nami Nori, or over $100 on a caviar-studded dinner, I recommend you watch the cartoon unwrapping video to avoid rattling the delicate temaki fillings. Each rectangle of nori is covered in two sheaths of plant-based cellophane; the rice and fish sit atop those folded wrappers. Before eating, you slide off the first cover with a gentle pull, then grip the nori as you remove the second, as if you were removing the linens from underneath a set table. You get the hang of it quickly.
Owners Lisa Limb, Taka Sakaeda, and Jihan Lee — three Masa alums — debuted this takeout system in 2020, and their collective care translates into a delivery meal that conveys almost all the pleasures of dining at Nami Nori. The seaweed coverings are sometimes half a degree softer than at the restaurant, but on other occasions they’re as wonderfully brittle as burnished puff pastry. The rice is cooler than it should be by the time it arrives at your doorstep, but it’s still wonderfully tart and vinegared, all the better to tame the intense maritime oils of scallion-topped toro.
The fillings exhibit clean flavors. Scallops are soft and lemony, setting the stage for a slick of XO and tobiko; the tiny roe burst with a subtle level of spice and funk. Maine uni ($13) exhibits a distinct musk, while the pricier Hokkaido variety ($34), flaunting a hue as orange as a San Pellegrino soda, conveys a candylike sweetness. Would vaguely warmer rice help release the layered aromas of the expensive urchin? Yes, but everything’s still quite tasty. 33 Carmine Street, near Bleecker Street, West Village; 236 North 12th Street near Roebling Street, Williamsburg.
Maki Kosaka, the handroll spot by the folks behind the more regal Kosaka, doesn’t have an online ordering system. Instead, the Flatiron restaurant recommends a variety of third-party delivery services for its pricey fare. This brings up the first bit of advice: Don’t use DoorDash, which might not even list the venue as available for pickup if you live outside the delivery zone; its existence appears to be erased. Opt for Uber Eats or Grubhub instead.
Some better news: Maki Kosaka and chef Sho Boo can throw together some tasty temaki — and they package everything smartly enough that it all looks pristine post-delivery. A small box holds a beautiful arrangement of garlic botan ebi (creamy and white, garnished with red chile threads), rust-colored lobes of uni (nicely funky but strongly metallic), and tiny seared scallops arranged in such a way that they almost resemble a maitake mushroom.
All the fish sit over mounds of rice meant to be wrapped in shockingly crisp nori. You take a bite of crimson chopped toro, garnished with firm black caviar, and let the oceanic fats and salts spread across your tongue. It’s all quite wonderful until you realize something’s off. My Kosaka order used rice without any noticeable vinegar, a necessary ingredient to dampen the richness of more indulgent cuts. And unfortunately, for those who like bite-sized maki rolls, the seaweed on those smaller morsels can turn out as soft as mochi. 55 West 19th Street, near Sixth Avenue, Flatiron.
I looked at my 16-piece omakase from Sushi Muse, the year-old takeout restaurant from chef Hiroki Odo, and started to frown. Bland king salmon was brown at the edges. Some cuts were unnaturally thick or bruised. Nori exhibited the texture of Saran Wrap. Fatty bluefin was silky when raw — or juicy when seared — but a third slice was partially desiccated at the edges, as if it had been dried it next to a radiator. This was not the type of experience one would want from a $95 meal, a reality made tougher by the fact that Odo charges just $125 for a more paced-out lunch kaiseki at his sit-down restaurant.
Muse’s downfall is that it focuses on nigiri, whose raw-fish-over-rice beauty depends on nuanced temperature contrasts and delicate architectures. This style of sushi doesn’t travel as well as wrapped temaki rolls made from piles of chopped toro. Also, unless you have a soft seasoning brush, you’ll find the more delicate sushi pieces breaking apart as you dunk them in soy. That’s not a problem when you’re dealing with $10 takeout, but such a fate is tougher at these price levels. I’ll admit, though, that my wagyu nigiri exhibited wonderfully beefy fats after I warmed it up in the oven for a few minutes.
Whether any 16-course omakase is the right choice for a home dinner is a different question, of course. A sushi bar is an immersive social institution where you can fall into a trance while watching the chefs rhythmically practice their craft. Keeping focus on an immobile box of sushi in the same apartment one’s been stuck in for the past two years is a greater challenge, especially when dealing with fish whose aromas start to turn halfway through dinner. To help create a bit of an illusion, I combed my hair and put on pants. Then, to break up the monotony, I took a call from a friend, played the air guitar when the Black Keys came on, and looked out over the new Rafael Viñoly building partially blocking my view of the Hudson. We’re living in weird times, but maybe some luxuries are better left to the realm of sit-down dining. Takeout omakases can feel less like actual tasting menus, and more like sad buffet platters. 17 West 20th Street, near Fifth Avenue, Flatiron.