October 10, 2016 | BITE: My Journal
Daisuke Nakazawa has become a New Yorker in just three years as the four star chef of Sushi Nakazawa.
I recall that first evening: settled into this same cushy black leather stool, Daisuke Nakazawa’s manic giggle, the dance of his thumb as he massaged a pinch of rice, the flight of his brush painting a sliver of fish. Sushi Nakazawa had just opened. It doesn’t seem possible, but, in fact, that was more than three years ago.
The Nakazawa team sends sushi in flights to pilgrims in the dining room.
There were just ten seats in the minimalist Village space dreamed up by Alessandro Borgognone, a third generation cook at Patricia’s, his family restaurant in the Bronx’s Morris Park, and his partner, Maurizio de Rosa, a wine dealer on leave playing sake sommelier. Instead of young Japanese women whispering behind us, there were men in black suits.
My companion consults a young guru in a dark suit about which sake he might prefer.
The trio had come up with a marching order of sushi that inspired a series of six sakes -- cold or icy or tepid. No sushi restaurant had ever offered a sake pairing before. Quickly, sushiphants found this quiet front stoop on Commerce Street. Soon, there was a month’s wait for seats and, after Pete Wells welcomed Nakazawa and his Edo-style tastings with four stars, scoring a spot at the bar would become a challenge.
Seconds ago, the sea scallop was alive. It still seems to be throbbing on its tiny ride saddle.
There are still just ten seats at the bar where the chef himself makes and delivers the 21-piece $150 omakase. But the minimalist space has grown up. Besides the $120 tasting at tables in the adjacent dining room dispatched in flights by the second team, there is à la carte service in the new lounge. The black dishes that chipped have been replaced by black marble. There is a marine theme in the Spanish art. The young staff is serious and elegant, in sharp contrast to Nakazawa’s playfulness.
Nakazawa starts the 21 nigiri tasting with a trio of salmons: Chum salmon to begin.
The seat is lowered or raised to suit behind you. Organizing, choosing a sake (for my companion) and a red wine for me, is like Broadway before the curtain goes up (although Commerce Street is definitely off-Broadway). Nakazawa enters and bows, grinning. He washes his hands and washes them again, sauces lined up, brushes en garde.
Voluptuous smoked sockeye precedes soy-marinated king salmon. One for each counter-hugger.
Head bowed, he slices salmon, preparing four sushi and distributes them to the couple on the corner and to us. Shiro Sake -- chum salmon. Then hay-smoked sockeye salmon. Soy-marinated king salmon follows. Satiny and seductive. And the same to the counter lineup. The fish is cool and the tail dangles over the compressed little tuffet of rice.
Skipjack, a member of the tuna family, is firm and cold, is also known as aku or arctic bonito.
Two rectangles of live scallop fairly quiver -- silk puffed up in my mouth. Bigfin Reef squid resists the teeth. Ishidai -- barred knifejaw -- follows. Then Golden Eye snapper and Spanish mackerel. Chilled Amberjack is another assertive mouthful. The chef uses a plastic block and great force to compress crab into a tight square of rice, then paints it with a cosmic saltiness.
The chef stops to tease the counter crowd with live spot prawns, tapping their tails to make them menacing.
Only twos are seated at the bar. Even if you are a notorious misanthrope, you must enlist a confederate to meet the house rule. Nakazawa distributes bright red spotted prawns for each duo. Ours is too lethargic for him. He presses its tail to promote some action. But then comes the knife and torn curls of sweet raw flesh fall over a skateboard of rice.
Here the medium Chu toro (center) is even more thrilling than the fattier otoro on the right.
Skipjack is bright red and looks like what it is: a member of the tuna family. But then a pedigreed tuna trio arrives in a lineup: lean Bluefin, an especially blowsy medium-fatty chu-toro and otoro, the fattest of all. For some, pulses are already racing as Nakazawa rations out sea urchin -- fat, perfect murasaki uni and a shortspine bafun.
A duo of sea urchin -- one Murasaki, the other Bafun shortspine -- are not enough for my uni hunger.
The miracle of the toro hand roll is not just the tuna, it's the crisp, toasted nori that shatters like puff pastry. As he delivers sea eel and his signature tamago egg custard in two small squares on rice, Nakazawa will ask if you want to order extra or a repeat of anything.
I expect toasted nori in a luxury hand roll to be crisp, but Nakazawa’s is exceptional.
I must admit there is actually a moment in this other-world march of swimmers that I contemplated stopping for a burger on my way home. But that cloddish whimsy faded with the sensuous prawn. At the end, I might take one sip of the wheaty tea in a glass cup just to remind myself that I don’t really like tea. Then the delicate sweetness of lichee sorbet seems an ethereal finale. An Uber is not good enough. I imagine flying home on a drone.
I’m not sure why the chef pairs sea eel and his signature tamago in one delivery. It seems irreverent.
My pal wanted extras, but I felt satisfied and finished with litchi sorbet and just a sip of tea.
23 Commerce Street 212 924 2212. Daily from 5 pm to 10:15 pm. A credit card is needed to secure a reservation. The price of omakase plus tax per person will be charged to the card on file for cancellations or reservation rescheduling made with less than 48 hours notice.
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