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Review: Sushi Nakazawa's Stunning Fish, Service Hiccups -

Review
Some might say I'm nitpicking. I'll counter that when you're spending $500 for two and vying for a
reservation a month in advance, you want to feel coddled, not stigmatized, and the more you spend,
the more such flaws are magnified. And for what it's worth, I arrived at Nakazawa 16 minutes past
the reservation time. Yes, these ignominies were forgotten after we reckoned with raw scallops, as
sweet and ethereal as French les flottantes. The mollusks were spiked with an aromatic yuzu-chili
paste and served over a mound of rice so light it seemed not to exist. Perfect.
Then we experienced sake service that ranged from excellent to craptacular. So that's the bad news:
Hospitality problems can persist throughout a meal at Nakazawa. The good news is there are few
flaws in the fish. Nakazawa is already one of New York's better and more fairly priced sushi spots --
no small achievement for a venue that's less than a year old.
And because dinner often begins simultaneously for everyone at chef's table restaurants like
Brooklyn Fare or Blanca, I like to think of being on time as an act of personal sacrifice for the
collective good. Not that anyone's waiting; show up late and the meal will (justifiably) have started
without you. The key, however, is that the enforcement of punctuality shouldn't come at the expense
of making people happy. This is the hospitality industry, after all. And that brings us to the case of
Nakazawa, an excellent sushi spot that might have fallen on the wrong side of that equation, at least
on a recent visit when I was running behind.
A note on the ratings: Ryan Sutton awards gold stars on a scale of zero (disappointing) to four
(exceptional). His main focus is on mid to high-end new and established restaurants. His colleague
Robert Sietsema awards his own set of (different colored) stars. Email Ryan at sutton@eater.com
and follow him @qualityrye.
Sake sommeliers sometimes do their jobs; they explain that you're drinking a Junmai Kimoto with
nice acid; it matches well with richer fish like the clean horse mackerel or the umami-rich saba.
Sometimes the sommeliers don't do their jobs; they pour your pairing, utter an unfamiliar name and
and walk away before you can even make eye contact or discuss whether it's to your liking. And for
those who'd like to peruse the wine or sake offerings in advance, sorry, there's also no online list.
It instantly became one of New York's most difficult reservations.
Borgognone mentioned during a phone interview that diners are free to order more food after the
end of the set menu; that courtesy, common at other omakase sushi spots, was never extended to me
during my visits at Nakazawa -- perhaps it's incumbent upon the diners to ask for a second round,
which can be a tough proposition when all of a sudden Daisuke drops your dessert sushi and takes a
bow.
When you're spending $500 for two and vying for a reservation a month in advance, you want to feel
coddled, not stigmatized.
There are also no choices at Nakazawa, and that's something to keep in mind. One of the great
things about Manhattan's best sushi restaurants is that dinner is often a dialogue, an interaction
between the chef, who asks for preferences, and the guest, who lets the kitchen do most of the
driving while putting in a few humble requests. At Nakazawa, the meal is monologue. You sit down
and the food starts coming, perhaps a slice of banded grouper or sea bream with kumquat zest.
Like at Jiro, Nakazawa serves a single product: Sushi. But unlike Jiro, where dinner is 30,000
(~$293 USD), things are a heck of a lot cheaper in New York. The price is $120 if you're dining at
one of Nakazawa's 25 dining room seats, with 21 pieces of nigiri served in flights. Those who sit at
the gorgeous marble bar will pay $150 for the same meal, with most of the nigiri served one at a
time.
It's not what you'd expect from a four-star restaurant, which Nakazawa most definitely is not.
Everyone is pleasant enough and and the food is great, but just as punctuality is slightly more
complicated than showing up on time, hospitality is more than being nice. It's about the steps of
service and getting them right. It's a skill. And here, that skill needs honing.
What makes Nakazawa a satisfyingly uniform experience is that the head chef personally serves
everyone at the bar -- a pleasure that's less common at, say, Ushiwakamaru, where a ninth string
sushi chef making spider rolls for the dining room was charged with preparing my $150 omakase a
few years back. And at a recent meal at Tanoshi, which didn't cost too much less than Nakazawa, the
backup chef started serving me mid-meal using a separate, somewhat mushier stash of rice. That
won't happen here.
Eat the toro hand rolls instantly and the nori collapses with less resistance than a good souffl.
You probably know the story. Alessandro Borgognone, the co-owner, is a 33-year-old Staten Islander
who used to cook at Patricia's, his family's restaurant in the Bronx. He discovered the 36 year-old
Daisuke Nakazawa while watching him in "Jiro Dreams of Sushi," a documentary detailing the
painstaking work that goes on behind the scenes at three Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo.
Borgognone lured the chef from a posting in Seattle and in August the duo opened Nakazawa in
Manhattan's West Village.
If you frequent restaurants that require those increasingly rare commodities known as
"reservations," it's likely you've mastered an urban skill as difficult and in demand as computer
coding. That skill is punctuality. Arriving on time in New York, after all, isn't so much a passive
courtesy as it is a stressful, chess-like effort in self-mobility.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing; I've long been a proponent of no-choice menus at Alinea or Atelier
Crenn. The question you have to ask yourself, however, is whether you view Daisuke's take on sushi,
which emphasizes the more neutral and subtle flavors of the sea, to be a compelling enough
narrative to warrant such restrictions. I'd argue it's more exciting to develop a relationship with a
good chef like Masato Shimizu of the Michelin-starred 15 East, who can push you outside of your
comfort zone while indulging your preference for say, oily and more strongly-flavored silver fish. In
other words, Nakazawa isn't necessarily a great choice for regulars looking for a more bespoke
experience.
Timing is all the more important with Daisuke's toro hand rolls; eat them instantly and the nori
collapses with less resistance than a good souffl. And while the nori wrapped around sea urchin
wasn't as crisp as it should have been, you don't mind the oversight much because the Santa
Barbara uni had such a crystal clear musk of the sea I'm halfway convinced Daisuke has figured out
how to dry-age the orange roe like steaks.
What accounts for the $30 price difference? "We're definitely pricing on demand," Borgognone tells
me. He correctly asserts that guests (myself included) are willing to pay a premium for the theater of
watching Daisuke rip the head off a live spot prawn. "Sayonara time," the chef quips, before
personally serving you the glistening crustacean. You pick up it with your hands and eat it; be sure
to savor the jelly-like texture as it slide down your throat; this is a maritime gummy worm. Lovely.
What also isn't great: When you pick up your first piece of sushi (cherry salmon, served too cold),
you discover there's no finger cloth to wipe the remaining rice off your hands -- a waiter corrects the
oversight a minute or so later after you look around in confusion.
Custom dictates that guests arrive at any given restaurant within 15 minutes of a reservation; yet
within those first 15 minutes, Nakazawa staffers (and the chef) asked my dining companion about
my whereabouts three times. Only after a second location-based query was she offered what most
level-headed waiters offer guests when they arrive: a beverage that isn't water. I apologize for my
tardiness -- due to a duo of broken Citi Bike docks -- but really, a restaurant's job is to make a guest
feel comfortable -- never the opposite.
Of course, sitting at the bar is more than just theater. Sushi is best consumed seconds after it's
prepared, with the barely cool (or room temperature) fish being gently heated by the warm,
vinegared rice. Borgognone rightly (and politely) admonishes diners who snap iPhone pics of the
prepared sushi; there's no photography ban here, he just wants you enjoy the golden eye snapper
right after it's blowtorched, with the fishy oils still oozing out like a pat of melting butter on toast.
Then a waiter tries to pour tap into your sparkling water. Not so lovely.