It was thrilling news for raw fish and rice fanatics when Sushi Nakazawa expanded in February. Though by most standards it's still a tiny restaurant—a 10-seat counter and a back dining room with 10 tables—on the other side of a gauzy curtain there’s a brand-new lounge where you can walk in without a reservation and pop some nigiri a la carte. This wouldn’t be a big deal at every sushi bar in town, but Nakazawa, which opened in 2013 to instant acclaim, is an infuriatingly difficult reservation to land. It's a bit like when the cast of Hamilton did impromptu outdoor performances for those people who didn't win the day's ticket lottery.
The lounge menu is limited to some rolls and a few nigiri flights, but really no one heaves their Ferragamo wallets over to Nakazawa for limitless options. They go for the genius of 38-year-old sushi chef Daisuke Nakazawa, who studied under Jiro Ono in Tokyo for a decade and made an appearance in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Nakazawa builds 21-piece sushi omakases here with joy and precision, using hay smoke, seasonings, and a rainbow of temperatures to overlay all kinds of delicious special effects.
And for anyone who’s tried and failed to get a seat for dinner, the lounge can be an introduction to Nakazawa’s style. Though you can’t get the omakase, you can order a few of the delicious three-piece flights a la carte, the very same plates people are eating next door. There’s a trilogy of Atlantic bluefin tuna in which the fishy star grows progressively fattier. Sea urchin glisten in exquisite triplicate, each piece pulled from a different ocean, jiggling gleefully on a mound of rice. The lounge also serves maki in small, neatly rolled bites filled with scallop and yuzu kosho—a casual reconfiguration of Nakazawa’s more glamorous scallop nigiri—or sweet eel, or fatty tuna slapped with chili.
When you need to take care of yourself, and spontaneously celebrate something small, the lounge could be a good place to go. Order a glass of Champagne and a plate of wild salmon, and one piece will be especially mellow, gently smoked over hay. You’ll hear the broody strumming of classical guitar on the speakers, and the thwacks of heels on tile as your server appears and vanishes like a cat. All of the servers are in suits, moving quickly and elegantly behind counters and curtains—when you need someone, it can be impossible to get some attention. So after a few bites, feel free to move along to a faster, less expensive dinner somewhere else.
The additional new space in the West Village was a destination for leather goods before the restaurant’s owner, Alessandro Borgognone, took it over in January, adding a deep gray marble bar and soft suede banquettes. The room is pretty in a cool, geometric kind of way and you could certainly get comfortable and build out a big dinner by ordering some rolls and one of each of the flights, but you’d be cobbling together a very poor imitation of the omakase, which plays out with so many more carefully ordered moving parts. Besides, the low lounge tables are a little too small, cramping the style of the food and drinks, and simply not ideal for a two-hour meal.
Borgognone says that he designed the space so that diners at the restaurant could have a comfortable, spendy place to wait for their tables (previously they were asked to wait by the wall, or worse, outside). This makes sense. The beauty of sushi-making is not a part of the experience here. In the lounge, there will be no feisty, live shrimp hopping off the cutting board. And the golden strip of finely structured tamago, the sweet, Japanese-style omelet that Nakazawa mastered in Jiro Dreams of Sushi (in a tearful scene that brought him to Borgognone’s attention) is not available. For a brush with that kind of eggy fame, you'll have to make a reservation after all.
Sushi Nakazawa is at 23 Commerce Street (West Village); +1 (212) 924-2212 or sushinakazawa.com.
Rating: Two stars (Very good)
What to Order: There is maki, which is, just as you’d expect, significantly better than the maki you pick up for lunch at Whole Foods. Go with the scallop and yuzu if you’re in the mood for it, but otherwise stick to the more exciting flights that show off Nakazawa’s precision: three pieces of salmon ($22), tuna ($25), sea urchin ($28), or silver fish ($20) nigiri.
Who’s Next to You: Thirtysomething couples dressed up for a birthday; a large French-speaking family from SoHo with their weirdly well-behaved small children, waiting for their table; a couple from L.A. in ripped denim and vegan leather, possibly too young for the bottle service they are ordering.
Soundtrack: Classical guitar, high heels clicking on tiled floor, and the soft laughter of rich people.