Shuko Review: Masa Alums Spin Luxury Sushi
Street vendors in Tokyo disrupted sushi tech in the early 1800s with the introduction of nigiri, the bite-size clusters of rice shaped by hand, covered with pieces of raw fish, which they served as inexpensive fast food to the city’s working class. Before this, sushi was mostly built like a layer cake, compressed and sliced.
Nigiri has come a long way since then, but the best-in-class are still spun in front of you, delivered bite by bite, ready to pop directly into your mouth—it’s just not so cheap, or fast. At Shuko, a sparse, luxurious sushi counter near Union Square, an omakase (chef's choice) marathon of about 20 pieces—mostly nigiri, with a few nori-wrapped rolls and a piece of sashimi here and there—costs $135 and lasts over two hours.
You’re paying for all that fish of course, for tuna belly at different degrees of fattiness, for pale, meaty petals of clam, and for sweet, fresh uni that turns to cream on your tongue. You’re also paying for the expert touch of a cook who can shape and season fine lumps of rice: When a piece of nigiri has been squeezed with skill, the rice holds together in your fingertips, but the warm grains fall away from each other in your mouth, carrying the flavors of fish. (Yes, use your fingers to pick up your nigiri, then use the little cloth provided to wipe them clean.)
The sushi at Shuko was often delicious, but the rice was occasionally dry, and about a third of the pieces were smeared with sadistic proportions of wasabi so the heat blasted up my nasal passages and brought a few tears to my eyes. This didn’t exactly spoil the omakase meals for me, but it certainly kept me on my toes, wondering with each bite if I’d get zapped again.
Kaiseki is the original tasting menu, a traditional Japanese form of many small courses structured to bring seasonal ingredients into play using a range of techniques. Shuko’s kaiseki ($175) starts with between six and eight small plates and ends with a slightly edited version of the sushi (15 or so pieces). I found it more exciting, and more masterfully composed, than the sushi on its own. In fact, the most extraordinary moments I experienced at Shuko didn’t involve sushi at all.
To begin, there were two minuscule bites of mochi, chewy dumplings made from rice flour, smeared with pistachio miso and nearly minty shiso leaf. It’s small, but its flavors are massive, aggressively bright and green. A cool salad of cucumber and big pieces of sweet dungeness crab was seasoned perfectly with Japanese ginger and vinegar. Grilled lobster with florets of cauliflower and truffles was perfectly engineered so every ingredient on the plate could shine. Soft, melt-away cubes of lamb belly and grainy sunchoke made a fine, unexpectedly rich pair in one of the final hot dishes, the meat cooked so the fat was nearly molten. And a ceramic dish of raw sea trout, garnished with pearls of trout roe and nagaimo—a slippery Japanese yam with the texture of a wet kiss—was fantastic, hinting at the sushi courses to follow.
The dishes that precede the sushi are generally brilliant. One in particular indicates the restaurant’s lineage: a small bowl of raw tuna belly that’s been chopped to a paste and covered in shining ossetra caviar, served with a toasted piece of soft milk bread, a Japanese-style white bread. This dish is deluxe DIY (you build your own bites) and quietly indicates the owners are alumni of Masa.
“Masa alum” is a goofy little phrase, like “Harvard grad.” It sounds nice, but explains little; over time it doesn't become less true, just less important to drop into conversation. Still, it might be worth pointing out that Jimmy Lau and Nick Kim, Shuko’s owners and head chefs, both worked for Masa Takayama, the most famous sushi master in the U.S. At Masa, Takayama’s Japanese restaurant in the Time Warner Center where dinner costs $450 a person, Lau was in charge of fish purchasing and Kim was head chef. With those skills, refined at that level, the two are a proper dream team.
Though they opened Neta together back in 2012, an underrated, casual place they no longer run, Shuko is more closely in line with Masa’s template of luxury. The room is sparse, but everything about the 20-seat bar feels expensive (Kim and Lau’s investor this time around is also a partner at Eleven Madison Park). Ingredients are flown in from all over the world—sardines from Japan, sea urchin from California, bluefin from Spain, caviar from China, and sea bream from Greece. The counter attracts a similarly international business crowd, and on a recent evening I heard people speaking in French, Japanese, and Spanish. Many diners are young and dressed in well-cut shirts and shiny jackets, or very carefully dressed down in Pavement T-shirts and jeans with pebbled leather sneakers.
Can you afford to go to Shuko many times? If so, you'll notice it's the kind of place that gets better the more often you go. Regulars, high rollers, editors, and chefs known to the house will get a friendly fist bump across the bar, and maybe a pour of something special. Those who get nice and chatty and spendy may acquire bonus slices of raw fish and tastes of caviar and all sorts of delicious extra little things offered up for them to taste, sniff, or fondle.
This is a room built for VIPs and those who don’t mind paying for the VIP treatment. When Kim and Lau ran Neta, you could book yourself an omakase, but you could also pop in for a few pieces of sushi and a shot of tequila poured over yuzu shaved ice and call it a night. There was the spirit of sushi as a casual food there and the dining room was warm and welcoming. I often recommended it to friends who wanted to experience great Japanese food without feeling intimidated or without spending many of hundreds of dollars—even on the lower end of the menu, there was so much to enjoy.
Shuko is sleeker, and more intensely focused on a high-end experience. Sometimes the hospitality can feel more selective, too. Dinner is by reservation only, tasting-menu only, and while the food can be exquisite, there’s an exclusivity to the room that can come off as cold. Once, dressed more for a blizzard than a fancy night out, I was asked to prove I had a reservation by showing the host my phone, then asked to stand by the door in my coat for several minutes. I didn’t mind too much, after all I was there to work, but this is the sort of thing that can dampen a special evening out before it starts by making people feel unwelcome.
This time around, with Shuko, Lau and Kim are definitely playing up their Masa-alum card. Depending on what you like, that could be a good thing.
Shuko is at 47 East 12th Street (Greenwich Village); +1 212 228-6088 or shukonyc.com
Rating: 2/4 Stars (Very Good)
What to Order: The kaiseki menu ($175) which involves a succession of six to eight small plates and over a dozen pieces of sushi—you’ll leave full. If you do go for the wagyu beef supplement ($50), share it among two or three people so you each get a few bites—it’s very rich. If you only want sushi, there’s the omakase ($135).
Who’s Next to You: Bankers, hedge fund bros, chic middle-aged dates, magazine editors, and chefs.
Soundtrack: Jay Z, Kanye, early '90s hip hop, the guys next to you discussing their international three-Michelin star bucket list.