My new favorite spot for sushi isn’t new at all. It’s a little counter in the back of an OK Japanese restaurant in Brooklyn that opened about six years ago and fell under the radar almost immediately afterwards. Why didn’t I know about its wonders sooner? I wondered, right after a bite of amberjack belly and a gulp of cold champagne.
Here's why: 1 or 8 has a name that is half conjunction, half numbers, along with a pretentious tagline that reads “atelier of food.” The sprawling dining room on a quiet street in Williamsburg is in various shades of sad, surgical white, from the walls to the booths, even the bare dead trees that serve as decor are painted white. This is meant to look sleek and minimal, but the effect is weirdly clubby, like the cafeteria at a very exclusive rehab center.
But keep walking. Right to the back, that’s where Kazuo Yoshida stands behind a counter in his white golf cap, wrapping and unwrapping exquisite pieces of fish. He is not famous, but he may be one of the most masterful sushi chefs in the city, and he’ll quickly make you forget about the restaurant’s aesthetic shortcomings.
Yoshida, 46, comes from Nagasaki, Japan, and moved to New York in the early 1990s. He cuts in slender, delicate waves, so you're never chipmunk-cheek full of raw scallop or shrimp. (Giant pieces of fish may be more in fashion, but I'm convinced that smaller nigiri let you taste the fish more clearly and actually enjoy its texture.) He seasons simply: A piece of goldeye snapper gets a shake of lemon zest. Raw scallop, a drop or two of lemon juice. A golden pile of sweet, shaved egg yolk covers a piece of meltingly soft spotted sardine, and Yoshida animates a light, silvery piece of needlefish by running a fingertip of wasabi along its length. The rice is always extraordinary, warm, falling apart in your mouth, but not in your fingertips.
Compared with many of the city’s flashier sushi counters, beloved by finance bros and whales of all sorts, the pleasures of dinner with Yoshida can seem quieter, which is to say, you are unlikely to be greeted with a fist bump or encounter any dollops of caviar. There is nothing to indicate the awesomeness of the sushi: You are equipped with disposable chopsticks and the same mass-produced, white square plates you'll find anywhere.
Still, Yoshida will not hesitate to serve you a vertical tasting of sea urchin—a dark, buttery piece from Santa Barbara beside another from Hokkaido. And though he serves bluefin in small amounts—a little medium-fatty meat from halfway down the belly or a piece of otoro, the full-on fatty-fatty belly, covered in pepper and torched so it yields some of its fat—there are plenty of less obvious fish in the mix.
A sliver of lionfish, the ostentatious and venomous invasive species, might be the one to kick off your meal. A couple of tiny sparkling squid, which light up their three-inch bodies when they’re looking for love, might surprise you with their pale and delicately chewy sinew, lit now with a squirt of shiso vinegar instead of bioluminescence. Whole Japanese icefish are firm and translucent, their cartilage tangled like slippery noodles, held in place with a crisp sheet of nori.
Yoshida’s younger apprentices—there are three or four, depending on the night—make the thick house rolls that are so popular in the dining room, the ones loaded with sea urchin and many kinds of fish and salmon roe and other things, too. They may offer you appetizers before you get into your sashimi and sushi, but don't get sidetracked. You didn't come here for sweet potato soup or kale salad or dehydrated prosciutto.
Yoshida serves what he loves, the way he loves to serve it, and that’s what you want. “We do everything, but no mackerel,” one man whispered to Yoshida on a recent night. “No mackerel at all?” Yoshida asked. “But I have four kinds of mackerel tonight. Are you sure? I love mackerel.” They winced and shook their heads. (Too bad, because Yoshida's chopped horse mackerel, its deep fishy flavors softened with ginger and sesame seeds, and brightened with shiso leaves, made for a particularly delicious piece of nigiri.)
Though his style can be classic, there is nothing precious about dinner at 1 or 8’s counter. In fact, my favorite thing is when Yoshida dances wildly, out of nowhere, as if animated for a few seconds by some kind of black magic, grinning and shaking his arms. "That's just my style," he told me over the phone. "All night, I am moving, and I'm never going to stop." And when the meal is over, and Yoshida knows for sure you are full and happy, he's likely to make a joke—even about the size of your appetite, which for the record is usually unacceptable in restaurants.
“Are you going out for hamburgers next?” he might say with a little wink. Or, “When you get home, are you ordering a pizza?” Not tonight, no.
1 or 8 is at 66 South 2nd Street, Brooklyn (Williamsburg); +1 (718) 384-2152 or oneoreightbk.com
Rating: For the sushi counter, three stars (excellent)
What to order: Omakase. Start with a plate of sashimi, or not. At the counter: 10 or so pieces of sushi ($60); 20 or so pieces ($120).
Need to know: Call to reserve a seat at the counter with Kazuo Yoshida.