Sushi of Gari, at 13-years old, is still one of New York’s best raw fish joints.
Yet I have a problem with the place: It serves a tasting of tuna made with Atlantic bluefin. You might as well be eating bald eagle barbecue.
Worse: You may not know you’re eating the beleaguered species, whose breeding ground might have been decimated by the BP Plc oil spill. Atlantic bluefin is at such risk that the U.S. has sought to ban international trade.
The fish are often caught near Boston or Spain, purchased in Tokyo, then flown back to New York. Most reputable non-Japanese restaurants in New York don’t serve it. But call any good sushi bar and you’re told bluefin is ready for your consumption.
That makes a lot of people happy, since the belly of the bluefin ranges up there with Kobe beef in taste heaven. (It’s very hard to find a good sushi chef who serves the belly of the more sustainable bigeye or yellowfin).
Gari serves it with pickled radishes to cut the oil, or heats it up to intensify the richness.
I learned two things during my visits to Gari’s outposts, on the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side and in Times Square.
First, Gari has virtually no New York equals in the area of non-traditional sushi. Imagine a slice of raw fish topped not with soy sauce, but creamy tofu.
Second, Gari, along with other sushi restaurants in the city, needs to be more transparent about the fish it serves. I couldn’t find the word bluefin on a single sushi menu at any Gari location. And I could only locate the word “toro,” which usually means bluefin tuna belly, written in Japanese.
The Upper East Side location is the best of the three, also the smallest and ugliest. Blond woods and red carpeting evoke an airport medallion lounge.
A server will tell you to order omakase (chef’s selection). My punishment for declining such advice in Times Square was a seat in front of a third-string chef with a smudged smock and a plate of salmon sashimi whose skin was falling off, a preparation that had all the elegance of an elementary school diorama.
Order the omakase and the chef will feed you 10 or so pieces by hand, one piece at a time, for about $75, though it’s never really $75 or 10 pieces. The chef will keep feeding you until you tell him to stop.
And what are you eating? I chose omakase as a reward for abstaining from the $49 tuna tasting. Unbeknownst to me, the omakase included a whole bunch of bluefin anyway, though I didn’t know this until I spoke with Tomi Tomono, a spokeswoman for Gari.
Without more frequently updated websites, how will patrons know when Gari uses kindai, an increasingly popular and more sustainable type of Japanese farmed bluefin? Tomono said kindai was offered instead of Atlantic bluefin a few weeks back, adding that she prefers the farmed flesh to the more endangered wild fish. “It’s so much less fishy,” she says.
So when kindai isn’t available, request omakase without tuna. The preparations, not so much the fish, are unique to this clever chain anyway.
Black cod is marinated and lightly cooked. The result is a level of richness that rivals the best toro.
The oiliness of mackerel is tamed by a sweet sesame sauce one night, a heady dice of mushrooms another night. The heft of squid turns creamy with a dollop of perfumed sea urchin. Pickled jalapeno juice rolls down the sides of yellowtail. The fiery liquid numbs and stings your lips. Sushi chefs around town mimic this pairing, but no one does it better than Gari.
Rating: ** (minus half star for transparency).
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost: Omakase is about $150 after sake, dessert.
Sound Level: 75-80 on West Side; quieter elsewhere.
Date Place: I’d rather spend $300 for two at Le Bernardin.
Inside tip: Skip the mushy beef tataki.
Special feature: Succulent spaghetti sliced mushrooms.
Will I be back: For a non-tuna tasting.
Sushi of Gari is at 402 E. 78th St.; +1-212-517-5340. Sushi of Gari 46 is at 347 W. 46th St.; +1-212-957-0046. Gari is at 370 Columbus Ave. Information: +1-212-362-4816. http://sushiofgari.com/
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)