October 9, 2012 | BITE: My Journal
Neta: Ingredients Count
Delicious Funk: salmon tartare on crisped rice under bonito wiggles.
By the time I focused on Neta, a peelaway enterprise by Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau, two chefs with a long history seconding Masa Takayama, the small West Village shop had already found it’s loyal audience. I needed to ask Richard Bloch, architect of the frosted glass, grey walls and granite floors to help me reserve in front of Kim.
At the 9 o’clock turnover we claim tall chairs near Chef Nick Kim. Photo: Joel Grey
We could have the late shift, he told me. Nine o’clock. I was bringing my friend Joel Grey. He lives just blocks away and had never heard of Neta. I was a novice to the sushi faith in 1971 when Joel coached me in Japanese fish talk at Take-Zushi – then a spare little second story eatery. “There are tastes that sing like a heavenly chorus,” I wrote in a review called “The Joy of Sushi,” after that transcendent hour on a plateau of bliss.
The gang’s all here in Neta’s deep crowded kitchen.
Now I hope omakase at Neta’s raised maple counter with a staccato of ebony insets might bring edible ecstasy to round out our history. I choose the $95 chef’s choice tasting rather than the $135. (There are $300 and $500 tastings too for regulars who demand them, Kim told me later.) We toast with the house’s offered sparkling wine, waiting to be amazed.
A duo of tempura potato leaves is a low-key amuse though very tasty.
I watch my friend absorb the kitchen’s whirling quadrille in front of us, energized by the funky cries of James Brown, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye on the sound system. “Have you ever seen such a crowded kitchen?” Neta is not for the rigid sushi traditionalist needing to zen out over melting toro. Tight budget. Shallow space. The architect had to put the back kitchen out in the open and then the owners wanted a bar too.
Uni on a cluster of yuba, slippery tofu skin, is the first seduction.
Neta fans seem to groove to the vibe. On our right, a solo guy pecks away on his IPad between dishes. Is he tweeting or sneaking some porn? I’d rather not know. Joel looks disappointed by Kim’s first feint. Potato leaf tempura folded in parchment. But then Kim cuts to the quick with uni, Santa Barbara sea urchin atop yuba soy milk in a small bowl, the two equally soft, almost equally slippery, prompting ahas and sighs.
Fresh tendrils of Dungeness crab in a corsage of cucumber julienne and wild parlsey.
After that, clumps of Dungeness crab taste impeccably firm and sweet in a corsage of cucumber julienne and wild parsley zinging with ginger, miso and lemony yuzu. Cunning change of pace.
Scallop seared in the shell with foie gras, sea urchin and white summer truffles.
Time for a drink. I’ve read mixologist Aaron Polsky – he’s the tall dude in denim with all that hair -- does a umami cocktail of Rishiri infused sake thickened with gin and pickled daikon, nori and konbu. But I’m not looking for an alcohol high. I want to taste Kim’s food.
Aaron Polsky, a tall dude in denim tends bar and devines your sake taste.
“What kind of sake do you like?” he asks. “Clean and not expensive,” I tell him. He chooses a bottle and pours some into a pitcher that he parks in a box of ice. The spirit is not clear at all. It’s complex and full of flavor. We both like it. Joel admires how it looks in its small grey sculpted cup and shoots it with his cell phone.
A custom sake cup sits on designer Bloch’s maple counter near ebony inset. Photo: Joel Grey.
From the chorus line of cooks, someone drops off fatty toro topped with a generous plop of Petrossian farmed caviar, grilled bread alongside to be savored slowly and gratefully. Then Spanish mackerel – the skin seared, the flesh raw, sprinkled with shredded daikon, flakes of tempura, a shiso leaf, a hint of ginger. I marvel at the tangle of flavors. I hear my companion’s sharp intake of breath.
Next we are confronted with slivers of white truffle on cuts of scallop lightly seared in garlic soy butter in its shell, then tossed with foie gras and more sea urchin. It’s like Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison came to your birthday party and knew just what you wanted, you spoiled brat.
Chef Kim has an aide fetch the uni supply. “And there’s more downstairs, he teases.”
Kim doesn’t offer blowfish to everyone, I’ve read. But we’ve passed the test, I guess. “Watch for the bone,” he warns. The plump little nubbin comes in a small collection of tempura that seems simple but isn’t: a soft shell shrimp, a small corn dumpling, a shishito pepper (mine is hot!) and another potato leaf. I probably would not have ordered beef on my own, but this small rectangle of lightly seared Kobe that follows is a remarkable mouthful too, with maitake, seaweed salt and more shaved truffle.
Inhale and the bonita flakes flutter above the house’s popular salmon tartare on rice.
Joel remembers a tight rectangle of pressed rice made by the sushi star at Bond Street. Neta has its own version, Kim offers: a long bar of crisped rice swathed with Szechuan spiced salmon tartare in a flutter of bonita flakes. Is this shamefully pop? I love it anyway. But it’s filling too and we scarcely have room for sushi.
The sweet tart jolt of plum in this impromptu nori roll makes a perfect palate cleanser.
Well yes, bluefin toro with yet another sea urchin on a small pad of warm rice. I have no problem inhaling that. Ume (pickled plum) in a tiny hand roll is a perfect palate cleanser before the ridiculously wonderful peanut butter ice cream. And soba tea. “It’s late,” says our waiter. “No caffeine.”
It’s late, yes, but acolytes are still arriving. Kim, discovering Joel lives a few blocks away, invites him to come back for family lunch. “Your cab is outside,” the manager says. “Did I ask for a cab?” I wiggle through standees crowding the narrow aisle. I guess they need our seats.
61 West 8th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. 212 505 2605.Monday through Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm. Sundays (checking)