July 20 (Bloomberg) -- Something’s not right at the hip Soho hangout Niko. That’s a shame, because the gastropubby food is downright great.
There was no host at the door on Friday, just an empty stand. And there was no maitre’d greeting guests at the second-floor dining room, just an army of staffers apparently trained to avoid eye contact. Can we sit at the sushi bar? “Someone will be with your shortly,” said a server. We stood, we waited.
Finally we were seated, but getting water and service was an equally complicated affair.
Cobi Levy, the former suit designer who opened Niko, ambles through his domain, a glass of white wine in hand, chatting with folks who might matter and ignoring those that don’t.
Eating here can be a deeply unpleasant experience because Levy and his team seem to go out of their way to make commoners feel invisible.
Levy was the guy behind Charles, an uber-exclusive West Village den where supplicants submitted reservation requests via email. Niko is theoretically more democratic. Except sometimes there’s a bouncer-like fellow out front. That means private party. Walk on by.
Come back, though, for the cherry glazed duck. It’s cut like a steak. Hefty slices of breast share space with crispy skin and silky fat. The game requires elbows on the table for leverage, knife and fork in hand for sawing. Except you’re handed chopsticks -- not optimum for this urban lumberjack preparation.
Same goes for a slow roast chicken, whose concentrated flavor lets you know the fowl lived a fine life. A pool of spicy consomme substitutes for pan juices. The dish calls for Riesling as much as it does for beer.
You must hail Niko’s waiters like taxi cabs. Raise your hand for some proper flatware.
Our server suggested a side dish of rice, curious counsel since two of our three entrees came with it. A runner snatched away dunking sauces as we munched on fried chicken -- skinless, boneless morsels with an equal ratio of breading to bird. Did the kitchen need that butter ponzu back?
Niko, like Megu and Nobu, is an uber-izakaya of sorts, specializing in anything Japanese and somehow doing it all pretty well, service notwithstanding.
Raw fish comprises about half the menu; all the more reason to sit at the sushi bar, where your chef-waiter stands trapped behind a counter. At least you’ll know where he is.
Start with Beausoleil oysters. Spicy pineapple vinegar mixes so seamlessly with the bivalves you become convinced that somewhere in the tropics, the ocean tastes of fruit and chilis. Move onto tiny fried shrimp that release hot, salty juices when chomped. Cleanse the palate with a glass of Roederer Champagne.
Then things get sustainable. Sort of. Toro tartare pulls off the impossible; it tastes like the majestic bluefin but contains none of that endangered species. Niko uses kindai, a rare and expensive farm-raised alternative. Chef Hiro Sawatari cuts the unctuous fish with jalapeno for heat, soy for salt, yuzu for pucker.
Sweet and Wild
Ask Sawatari for a piece-by-piece omakase. His cuts of fish aren’t as trim or elegant as at other high-end sushi joints; his rice isn’t as firm as it should be. No matter. Any annoyances dissipate when you lay a slice of his sockeye salmon on your tongue.
He rolls sea urchin into a tube of nori and hands you the “uni cigar,” as he calls it.
“Suntory Time” steak ($42-$78), with a glaze of Japanese whiskey, took so long to cook that Niko was thoughtless enough to send out dessert first -- ice cream coated in sticky rice flour. We sent it back.
Wait for the beef. The Creekstone Farms, 30-day dry-aged strip balances minerality and char with the sweetness of malt. It even comes with a knife.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Most dishes under $30; omakase sushi can easily run $75 and up.
Sound Level: About 70-75.
Date place: If your date likes being ignored by waiters.
Inside Tip: No one picking up the phone? Keep calling. They eventually answer.
Special Feature: The Leitz Kabinett, an under-$60 Riesling, is your go-to wine for this food.
Will I be back? Maybe to the sushi bar.
Niko is at 170 Mercer Street, near Houston Street. Information: +1-212-991-5660; http://helloniko.com
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)