By JEFF GORDINIER
NY Times: October 29, 2013
If you’re expecting all the whispery delicacy of a haiku at New York Sushi Ko on the Lower East Side, you may be a tad taken aback when John Daley grabs the blowtorch.
A lot of sushi chefs have a blowtorch. They generally use it to give the surface of a piece of fish a fast, scorched-and-liquefied sheen of extra flavor. But Mr. Daley, who has the words rice and fish tattooed on his knuckles, does something else. First he places some tuna into a wire strainer. Then he ignites the flame and keeps it relentlessly fixed on the fish until it has almost melted away.
Piscine fat drips into a plate beneath the strainer and becomes a rich, clear-as-water sauce for a bulbous mound of rice and minced tuna. And the chewy nub of fish left at the bottom of the strainer? He drops that on top like an oceanic bacon bit. “Tuna chicharrón,” he likes to say.
“I told my master I was doing that and he said, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ ” the chef, 34, said from behind the counter on a recent evening. Mr. Daley, who has a cinematic ear for dialogue, wryly reminded his master that New York Sushi Ko is his restaurant, so he can do what he wants.
It’s the sort of response that you might hear all over New York City. At various spots downtown, including Sushi Nakazawa and Sushi Dojo, fish-and-rice specialists in their 20s and 30s have been slipping out of the apprenticeship phase and making their mark. Their presentation may be more traditional than Mr. Daley’s, but they share a desire to run sushi bars that seem more like Tokyo hangouts than Buddhist temples. Rigidity and austerity are out. Change and conviviality are in.
For the last 10 years or so, any serious discussion of sushi artistry in Manhattan has been dominated by a handful of established and expensive favorites at the top echelon, including Masa in the Time Warner Center, Sushi Yasuda on the East Side, Kurumazushi in Midtown and 15 East near Union Square, where the man whom Mr. Daley refers to as his master, Masato Shimizu, holds court. You will find partisans who love the complex flavors that elevate each bite at Sushi Seki and Ichimura at Brushstroke, and those who stay true to the old-guard citadel of Hatsuhana, and those who cherish the intimacy of spots like Jewel Bako and Ushiwakamaru.
Over the last few months, though, it has become clear that there’s a new crew to consider. Most prominent among the young guns is Daisuke Nakazawa, who so far has been best known to an American audience as that guy in the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” whose tortured quest to learn how to make perfect tamagoyaki, the delicately sweet omelet that arrives toward the end of a meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, pushed him to the brink of tears.
Mr. Nakazawa, a 35-year-old father of four, spent 11 years studying the art of sushi as an apprentice to Jiro Ono, the octogenarian master whom some regard as the greatest sushi craftsman alive. Mr. Nakazawa’s personal style is looser than his master’s, but his adherence to tradition runs deep. After more than a decade of training with Mr. Ono, Mr. Nakazawa was told he was now considered a shokunin: a craftsman skilled enough to hang out his own sushi shingle someday. “Jiro said it was the time,” he said through an interpreter, on a recent afternoon downtown. “But I was not ready.”
Deeply unsettled by the earthquake and tsunami that savaged Japan in 2011, Mr. Nakazawa moved his family to Seattle and got a job at Shiro’s, a sushi mainstay on the Pacific Coast. That’s where the New York restaurateur Alessandro Borgognone tracked him down in 2012. Mr. Borgognone and his wife watched “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” one night; mesmerized, the restaurateur, who is associated with Patricia’s in the Bronx, became determined to import one of the key players from Sukiyabashi Jiro to New York City. Knowing he would never be able to entice either Mr. Ono or his son, he decided to zero in on the sweet-omelet dude.
Mr. Borgognone found Mr. Nakazawa on Facebook. He wrote a letter to the shokunin, using Google’s translator to convert the words to Japanese, and sent it into the blue. Eventually the Facebook message led to an exchange, then to Mr. Nakazawa’s first trip to New York and then to dreams of opening a world-class sushi mecca in the West Village.
The way the chef sees it, the success of Sushi Nakazawa depends on his being a stickler about every element of the preparation: the provenance of the seaweed, the temperature of the sea urchin, the type of rice.
But in spite of his fastidiousness, Mr. Nakazawa is no scold. Visitors to his sushi bar are met with a smile and a talk-show host’s knack for one-liners. In casual conversation, he’ll even admit to having an appetite for populist variations on his craft. “Oh, I like spicy tuna rolls!” he said the other day. “To eat. Never to make.” Capitalizing on his approachability is part of the restaurant’s mission. Dinner at Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo can resemble an expensive version of speed-dating: You sit down at the counter, bites are placed in front of you in rapid succession and your long-awaited encounter with the world’s most exquisite sushi comes to a close in about the same amount of time you would spend with a burrito at Chipotle.
That probably wouldn’t fly with New Yorkers who are paying upward of $150 a person in exchange for a transcendent night. “You’ve got to bring him to a New York state of mind,” Mr. Borgognone said. “It can’t be a 20-minute experience. People don’t want to feel like they’re getting robbed.”
If Sushi Nakazawa comes across as a friendlier-than-expected temple, Sushi Dojo in the East Village cultivates the spirit of an impromptu cocktail party. Born in France and raised in Florida, David Bouhadana doesn’t have a background that you would normally expect from a sushi chef. “I’m a French-Moroccan Sephardic Jew,” he said. About a decade ago, he showed up to work as a waiter at a sushi restaurant in Florida when the owner suddenly pointed to him and told him to start prepping meals.
“I did a terrible job that night,” Mr. Bouhadana said. He scattered rice everywhere and deep-fried the shrimp without batter. The owner gave him $20 and firmly instructed him never to return. Mr. Bouhadana came back anyway (he was becoming obsessed) and wound up training for about 10 years with masters in Japan, Los Angeles and New York. He is 27.
Maybe as a pre-emptive strike against anyone who would question his youth, Mr. Bouhadana chose dojo, the Japanese word that often signifies a place of study, as the name of the restaurant that he runs as part of a trio with fellow chefs Hiromi Suzuki and Makoto Yoshizawa. But after school is more like the operative philosophy.
Sushi Dojo is the sort of place where the customary glass of beer that a diner buys for the chef can evolve into a frosty carafe of sake from another customer a few seats away. Stoic silence is not Mr. Bouhadana’s style; his banter with customers is as quick as his knife work. “I guess everyone’s just tired of the grumpy old chef,” Mr. Bouhadana said. He added: “I always say, ‘Serious sushi, but not serious people.’ ”
In some ways, the ones who seem the least traditional in the sushi world could be seen as the most traditional of all. “The sushi bar as we know it didn’t really exist before the 1950s,” said Sasha Issenberg, the author of a 2007 book “The Sushi Economy.” In spite of all the “pageantry” and “hushed introspection” that we associate with it now, he said, “Sushi was a fast food in Japan in the 19th century before it was a fancy sit-down food.”
At New York Sushi Ko, where the man with the “Night of the Hunter”-ish ink can be found blowtorching tuna and tenderizing octopus to a booming soundtrack of reggae and hip-hop, Mr. Daley insists that his rock ’n’ roll insouciance shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of discipline. “Sushi to me is the zenith,” he said. “It’s pristine. It’s the one punch, one kill. It’s the karate of foods.”
He considers himself bound to classic Japanese methods. “I’m just messing with their form,” he said. “Their presentation. I’m not messing with their flavors. There’s no truffle oil here.”
That said, his nickname at 15 East was Punk, and there are probably good reasons for that. It’s clear that when it comes to some of the fussiness that has begun to characterize the contemporary sushi bar, Mr. Daley doesn’t mind firing up the blowtorch.
“We’ve been seeing things the same way for 200 years,” he said. “I’m getting bored with it. It’s 2013, man. It’s New York. It’s the Lower East Side.”