New York Sushi Ko is not the sort of place where you’d expect to spend $200 on a tasting menu.
Reggae pipes out through the sound system. The guy next to you is wearing a T-shirt. And your street-side view is an LED billboard for a local car service (“lowest cash rates”).
The chef stands alone behind the bar. He uses a barber’s spray bottle to apply soy sauce. He wields a blowtorch, pointing the blue flame in your direction. His name is John Daley.
And he likes to paraphrase Dr. Seuss.
“Red fish, blue fish, one fish, two fish,” he says, placing a piece of sushi in front of you.
A young woman, somewhere between drunk and sober, walks in and asks if Ko does takeout.
The chef shakes his head. And bows.
Those who call up for a booking are sent to voicemail. “Send a text” is the message. It’s a heck of a policy considering dinner for two, after tax, tip, and sake, can cost close to $600. But you accept these rules, because your SMS is returned in less time than you’ve spent on hold (or battling busy signals) at Stone Barns or elsewhere.
So keep an open mind, because the 11-seat Sushi Ko is a story about subverting expectations, about making you rethink fine dining on the Lower East Side, just as WD-50 did when it opened up the block on Clinton Street more than a decade ago.
It’s also a story about the boom in our city’s omakase economy, with ambitious chef’s choice spots like Nakazawa, Hirohisa and Dojo all having opened within the last year or so.
Ko is among the pricier members of the bunch. The food is excellent, almost on par with 15 East, whose chef, Masato Shimizu, Daley calls master.
Daley, a Jersey guy who’s part of the small but growing ranks of non-Asian sushi chefs, greets you with a small plate of uni. The musky urchin is flanked by a crescent moon of oily salmon roe, a hidden patch of raw sweet shrimp, and a salty layer of dashi gelee. Minutes later comes course two: Scallops, perfumed with yuzu foam and sweetened with uni sauce.
Ko then completes the orange trilogy with a mound of Hokkaido urchin over kampyo “nori” and sweet shrimp “rice.” Looks like sushi. Tastes like maritime silk.
Diners able to afford it might splurge on Ko’s more expensive menus on visit one, priced at $125 (five courses) to $200 (the fully monty), to experience Daley’s full range. After that, my advice is to make yourself a regular with the cheaper sushi-only option, which starts at $65 for about 11-13 pieces.
Mackerel tartare, a staple 15 East, is just as brilliant here. Daley garnishes the rich, coarsely chopped fish with a mound of spoon-seared saba -- to amp up the oily bliss.
Daley likes to double down on fat. He takes a slice of toro (fatty tuna) and sears it over a wire mesh strainer, letting the lardo-like drippings rain over a chopped mound of more crimson toro. “Strawberry sorbet,” Daley quips, before anointing the soft tartare with the crispy, blackened fish. The result is the oceanic equivalent of pairing a pork rind with pork fat.
Still hungry? A flurry of piece-by-piece sushi ends the meal. The fish is as it should be, just barely cool or at room temperature, over warm, vinegared rice.
Lean tuna, expertly aged, dissolves in the mouth like tissue paper. Raw scallops sport that deft balance of sugar and brine. Then Daley takes halfbeak (“sometimes incorrectly referred to as needlefish”) and ties it up like a French braid. The texture and taste is akin to a gourmet gummy worm.
Things get richer and fattier as the sushi service nears an end. Horse mackerel, gently oily, gets a dose of ginger-scallion to cleanse the palate, while sanma, intensely oily, is kept in check with the sting of grated garlic. And chu-toro (medium fatty tuna) is served over rice and a bit of uni; Daley calls this creation “Chu-ni” and it’s as awesomely gratuitous as finishing your porterhouse steak with butter. Right on.
“What do you have for dessert,” a patron asks.
“Try WD-50 up the block,” he replies.
There you go. That $200 tasting doesn’t include sweets or petits fours. Not what you expected. But it’s all darn good.
Here’s another surprise. A man from Florida, a woman from New York, and a guy from Japan walk into an East Village sushi bar. Which one is the chef? Answer: All of them.
Welcome to Boris Lidukhover’s Sushi Dojo, which, like Ko, injects a dose of diversity into the homogenous world of Japanese raw fish restaurants. It’s also an unusually affordable place to eat sushi: Ten pieces will run you $45; fifteen pieces plus a hand roll will set you back $80.
Sure, you could eat tuna for less at one of those conveyor belt joints, but this is just about as good as it gets for piece-by-piece service, where you get your nigiri pre-sauced and one at a time. Better to spend your time focusing on the subtleties of kinmedai, a type of snapper with rich, delicate fats, rather than figuring out how to dunk your fish in soy.
This is all overseen by head chef David Bouhadana, chef Makoto Yoshizawa, formerly of Kurumazushi, and chef Hiromi Suzuki, late of 15 East, and a bold female outlier in this male-centric profession. And since Dojo takes its last seating as late as 11:30pm, be prepared to see the chefs drinking beer and toasting customers as they prepare sushi.
If Ko is a quiet, quirky, one-man show, Dojo is a party.
Suzuki sees me smile after I demolish a piece of kohada.
“Do you like silver fish?”, she asks.
I do. And all of a sudden I’m eating sanma, tempered with ginger, and saba, with a clean, oily funk that lasts and lasts.
Dojo’s rice is outstanding, with clean, vinegared grains. And hand rolls boast nori sheets that collapse in the mouth with preternatural ease. Still, the raw fish can be a bit colder than it should be, and the nigiri can be over-wasabied.
Sea urchin with salmon roe doesn’t quite have the same zing and pop as at Ko. At these prices, it’s not so much an issue.
And Dojo deigns to serve dessert. Try the sweet tofu or green tea ice cream. I finish my sake and Bouhadana gives me a fist bump after I identify the song he’s pumping through the speakers: Chromeo’s “Fancy Footwork.” Told you it was a party.
The Bloomberg Questions:
Price: Sushi service starts at $45 at Dojo; $65 at Ko.
Sound Level: Music at both, much quieter at Ko.
Date Place: Yes.
Inside Tip: Affordable sake, wine lists at both venues.
Special Feature: Excellent pork belly at Ko.
Back On My Own Dime? Yes to both.
New York Sushi Ko is at 91 Clinton St. Information: +1-917-734-5857 or http://newyorksushiko.com.
Sushi Dojo is at 110 First Avenue. Information: +1-646-692-9398 or http://sushidojonyc.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
(Ryan Sutton reviews restaurants for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
-- Editors: Mark Beech, Richard Vines.