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Masa Alum Serves $135 Caviar Omakase at Neta: Ryan Sutton

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May 23 (Bloomberg) -- Neta is a civilized, luxurious restaurant, where a very good sushi dinner for two can approach $450 after wine, tax and tip.

Tuna belly tartare is seasoned with a hefty sprinkling of black sturgeon caviar. Spoonfuls of sea urchin porridge are studded with shavings of a Russian oligarch’s favorite vegetable: truffle.

You can converse with your dining companions without having to shout and you’ll never have to compete with thumping music.

And just when you think all is regal and right, chef Nick Kim places a mash-up of spicy raw salmon in front of you. By high-end sushi standards, that’s akin to offering you a California roll.

I dare you to ask for spicy salmon at Masa, where Kim spent eight years as top toque and where dinner starts at $450 per person before sake, tax and tip. Jimmy Lau, Neta’s co-chef, hails from the cheaper Bar Masa.

Neta is closer in style and cost to Gari, Seki and Nobu. It doesn’t quite align with sushi-purist dogma.

Tobacco Tones

While you savor the tobacco tones of cured abalone liver. Your senses might suddenly be overwhelmed by the aroma of foie gras being seared a few feet away in the open kitchen -- a rarity at sushi restaurants, where hot food, if there is any, is prepared out of sight.

Chefs, instead of standing planted at their posts, move from station to station, checking on barbecued fish collars (gorgeously fatty) and grilled toro sinew. Warm Boston scallops pair well with cool Santa Barbara sea urchin, the brilliant white and orange colors complementing each other like a Humorette. It’s a peaceful contrast until the bartender starts shaking a $14 gin and lime cocktail a few feet away.

Even better is the rishiri martini. The drink hits you with an umami punch. The sake is infused with seaweed, a Japanese dirty martini. The cocktail helps you adjust to Neta’s sushi zen, which to some may be no zen at all, or at least not until you move onto the $45 truffled cognac.

Sushi Standards

Never quite loud, Neta is visually noisy. Some will call that description nitpicky but it’s no small matter in the more typically serene world of raw fish.

Think of it this way: You get about twenty-five bites of mineral-tinged ribeye at Minetta Tavern. The flavors are assertive. At Neta, you only get one bite of raw sawara mackerel. If you don’t give the single morsel your utmost attention, you won’t fully appreciate slightly oily flesh or the gentle crunch of the tempura flake topping.

That fine fish comes near the beginning of the omakase selection, which is what you should order here. Pricing starts at $95, though most of my fellow diners at the sushi bar ordered the $135 caviar-spiked variant.

Good thing Neta often compensates for its distractions with flavors that are accessible and indulgent. After a few slices of akami (lean tuna) chu-toro (fatty tuna) and o-toro sushi (fattier tuna), Kim served me toro tartare with sea urchin and more caviar, a dish worthy of Roman Abramovich’s 557-foot superyacht.

Flavor Balance

Kim amps up flavors with an eye toward balance. The intense gelatins of eel are checked by a cucumber wrapping.

The Swiss-like neutrality of kanpachi gets a kick from spicy potato crisps.

And that signature spicy salmon dish, the last composed course before sushi service begins, boasts a gorgeous unctuousness. The cool tartare sits below bonito flakes and a layer of sizzling rice.

The grains are so hot they burn your tongue. That’s a problem when you’re priming your palate for the main-event.

When you start eating the sushi, you realize Neta’s rice isn’t terribly good. Sometimes it’s gently overcooked. Sometimes it’s too warm. Sometimes the nigiri seem to disintegrate in your hands. This needs to improve quickly.

Then again, it’s hard to leave without thinking that Neta is a work in progress, promise of a very high order, but not there yet. There is one dessert: Grapefruit granite with tiny segments of the citrus fruit. It’s the signature dessert at Masa as well. Game on.

Rating: **

The Bloomberg Questions

Price: Omakase at $95, $135; a la carte for less.

Sound Level: Around 75 decibels, never too loud.

Date Place: Yes.

Inside Tip: Killer seaweed martini.

Special Feature: Lots of bluefin toro.

Back on My Own Dime: When the rice is perfect.

Neta is at 61 W. Eighth St. Information: +1-212-505-2610 or http://www.netanyc.com.


What the Stars Mean:

****         Incomparable food, service, ambience.
***          First-class of its kind.
**           Good, reliable.
*            Fair.
(No stars)   Poor

Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 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: 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.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Holterhoff on music and James Pressley on books.

To contact the writer of this column: Ryan Sutton in New York at rsutton1@bloomberg.net or qualityrye on http://twitter.com/qualityrye

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.