In The Midnight Hour: Sushi Seki
Editor's note: Please welcome Zachary Feldman. His column, "In the Midnight Hour," will take you to a different late-night eatery every week. First up: 2:00am sushi. Here's Zachary!
The Upper East Side is often blasted for having a dearth of dining options beyond the prohibitively expensive, but the neighborhood best known for museums and old money has everyone else beat when it comes to top-notch sushi. There's Sasabune, Sushi of Gari, Tsuki, SE favorite Shabu-Shabu 70, and Gajyumaru to name a few. Each one has its supporters, but where Seki knocks them out cold is convenience—and what's more, convenience matched with quality. Good sushi is never an inexpensive endeavor, and simply put, there aren't many places one can go on either coast to enjoy top quality nigiri into the wee hours of the night, six days a week.
A favorite of chefs like Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Seki's closing hours are at the whim of the sushi masters, usually hovering between 2:30 and 3am every night. Weeknights find the bar thriving with an assortment of devoted aficionados and well to-do gentlemen with their cohorts both business and pleasure—while on the weekends, it becomes a haven for the prep-schooled spawn of the upper crust, who flop over each other like Alaskan salmon, hoping to swindle booze from the obliging staff. Chef/owner Seki trained at the inventive Sushi of Gari, and a number of nigiri pieces from Gari's playbook—tuna with tofu sauce, chopped sea eel with avocado and the now-ubiquitous yellowtail jalapeño—make it into the omakase here.
Service can lag a bit when the place is mobbed, but watching over the procession is the bashful and gracious Koji Ohneda, a near-caricature of Japanese servitude who literally stumbles over himself to make sure that everyone is having a pleasurable dining experience. With his pencil mustache and staid mop of hair, Koji is as much a fixture as Chef Seki himself, and watching him handle the drunken masses on a Saturday night illustrates just how far his hospitality extends. His patience is enviable. I once saw a man enter the restaurant, sit down, and eat his entire meal while talking on his cellphone. He also ordered a glass of white wine with ice cubes in it, and Koji didn't even bat an eye. If that's not patience, I don't know what is.
Approaching the restaurant at 2:00am Tuesday night, I intercepted by two player-hating (well, sideways hat-wearing) high-stakes poker players who made a beeline for the door from their Porsche. Inside, a lone man sat at in the middle of the sushi bar, a fleet of toro-scallion hand rolls set in front of him. The poker players joked with Koji about playing Texas Hold 'Em for the bill and ordered two portions of "that spicy tuna, the one with the wasabi". Doubling down, I followed suit.
Maguro Avocado ($9.50) is in line with the rest of the somewhat pedestrian appetizers. Cubes of tuna and avocado bathed in soy sauce spiked with fresh wasabi aren't out of balance, as can sometimes be the case with this common combination.
The best way to sample Seki's wares is the Seki Special for one ($45), a filling assortment of unusual nigiri from the pricier omakase that range from subtle (the aforementioned tuna/tofu) to in-your-face (wild salmon with grilled tomato and onion sauce). Rounding out the plate is a maki roll, sometimes toro-scallion, sometimes shrimp tempura, always tasty.
A rare piece of vegetable sushi, the eggplant sushi with bonito flake is a thing of beauty. Marinated in dashi, the eggplant takes on the texture of the softest toro and the funky bonito (smoked skipjack tuna) adds texture and earthiness. Soft and tangy sweet, it makes a pretty convincing case for eggplant as king of the nightshades.
If a late night snack is what you're hankering for, ordering a la carte is a fine alternative to the all-inclusive options. The best bang for your buck in that regard is the addictive spicy scallop hand roll ($7). Tobiko and tempura flakes provide texture to impeccably sweet slices of scallop swathed in a spicy kewpie-based sauce. They disappear far too easily.
Every meal ends with a customary cup of green tea, perfect for easing into slumber. To be able to experience this sort of dining so late at night is a true luxury—making Sushi Seki a destination for the night owl in all of us.
1143 First Avenue, New York NY 10021 (map)