These days, it’s not uncommon to walk into a restaurant and find a chef that you’ve seen on TV—maybe in a Quick-Fire Challenge on Top Chef, or judging the latest crop of would-be stars on Chopped. They are stars in the Hollywood sense of the word—famous, mostly, because they were on a show about making people famous. Maybe you watched them have a breakdown over a collapsed soufflé, or verbally undress someone about over-saucing some pasta.
I experienced a very different flicker of recognition when taking a bar seat at Sushi Nakazawa this past weekend, a new Japanese restaurant helmed by Daisuke Nakazawa. With his bald head and slightly crooked front teeth, he’s unmistakably that lovably humble apprentice from Jiro Dreams of Sushi—the one who toils for months on end to master tamagoyaki, the slightly sweet omelette that, like many aspects of Japanese cooking, is simple to the naked eye, but incredibly difficult to get right. One of the film’s most heartwarming moments is watching Nakazawa recall the moment when he finally wins Jiro’s respect. “I was so happy that I wanted to throw my fist in the air,” he says. “But I tried to not let it show.”
Now, standing behind the the counter of his own sleek West Village joint, flanked by his disciples meticulously hand-grating wasabi and scooping glistening spoonfuls of uni, you can’t stop the guy from smiling from ear to ear. He’s got his own stage to play on, and it’s clear that he’s having fun with it. At one point, he slapped a giant mantis shrimp onto the bar and left it to writhe and wriggle about, inducing oohs and ahhs from the audience and proving that—when it comes to Instagramming $150, 20-course omakase dinners—New Yorkers are as quick on the draw as Wyatt Earp. Later, he dropped an immaculate hunk of fatty tuna on my plate and said, “Wagyu from the sea,” throwing back his head and releasing a big guffaw. And when a diner asked what his favorite restaurant in New York is, he barely missed a beat before blurting out, “Five Guys!” Talking about customizing cheeseburgers seemed sort of an odd thing to do while we ate perfect morsels of pike mackerel and giant clam, but it was also sort of awesome.
Left to right: Mantis shrimp, uni, medium-fatty tuna
If breaking the monastic stereotype of real-deal sushi counters in the city is a breath of fresh air, it’s only because it’s not accompanied by any corner-cutting when it comes to the actual food. You can easily find yourself zoning out for minutes at a time watching the team blowtorch freshly formed nigiri, sort through different varieties of beautifully aged fish, and wield knives that would make Crocodile Dundee shit his pants. The rice—which people who know a lot more about sushi than I will tell you is the key to the good stuff—is seasoned just right and packed so delicately that it falls apart as soon as it hits your mouth. And the fish is a reminder that, when you’re paying two stacks for an hour and a half of sushi and sake, locavorism is for the birds.
Yes, you might get some Long Island fluke or Maine scallop, but you’ll also eat your way around the globe: yellowtail from Hokkaido, blue shrimp from New Caledonia, sea urchin from Santa Barbara. For Nakazawa, stating the origin of each bite isn’t designed to make people feel good about themselves; it’s about articulating pride in the idea that every product is the best articulation of that particular fish. He even lets you know the nori wrapped around the one hand roll of the night—an evolved take on spicy tuna, with Japanese mustard in place of the usual globs of mayo—is harvested from Tokyo Bay and of the highest possible quality.
You can easily find yourself zoning out for minutes at a time watching the team blowtorch freshly formed nigiri, sort through different varieties of beautifully aged fish, and wield knives that would make Crocodile Dundee shit his pants.
Amid all of the minimalist preparations are some curveballs that add some flair to the proceedings: triggerfish was topped with its own liver for an extra boost of richness, and one of the most memorable bites of the night was Atlantic sockeye salmon that had been smoked over hay on the roof of the restaurant. But the former student still pays homage where it counts, ending the meal with impeccable slices of that familiar tamagoyaki. As my dining partner noted, it’s probably a contractual obligation.
After placing this last piece on each person’s plate at the bar (he serves every single piece by hand through the entire meal), Nakazawa bowed, said a hearty thank you, and promptly disappeared. A fitting mic drop for a chef who finally has his own show.
I think most of us were hoping he’d return for an encore of sorts—maybe some more of the medium-fatty tuna that disintegrates on your tongue like cotton candy, or a piece of the smoky skipjack. He did come back, but for a different purpose: to pour himself a beer, which he used to cheers everyone enthusiastically. Somehow, it was just as satisfying.
How to book. Reservations for the 10-seat sushi counter can be made for two people only—they go live a month out at 12:05am, and they fill up fast. The omakase is slightly cheaper in the dining room ($120 instead of $150), but you’d be a fool to miss the show at the bar. At $40, sake pairings are both excellent and well-priced, but it’s tough to keep up with them over the course of 20 small bites. 23 Commerce St (212-924-2212, sushinakazawa.com)