170 Mercer Street, New York NY 10012 (b/n Broadway and Greene; map); 212-991-5650
Setting: Small, stylish, and understated
Must-Haves: Anything from the sashimi bar, King Crab, Steak Tartare
Cost: Appetizers $10-24, Entrees $24-29
Food: A-/B+. Very good, if expensive. Service: D. Before you enter, make sure you either know the owner, or have lots of money, and it shows. *
*Editor's note: This review is an honest and accurate reflection of our first visit to Niko. On a subsequent anonymous visit by a different writer, we have found the service much improved, if not perfect: servers were courteous, dishes were well-paced, checks were delivered promptly; there was noticeably less attitude the second time around. We're hopeful that Niko's service will continue to improve, which would lead us to recommend this restaurant much more highly.
I didn't go into Niko knowing who Cobi Levy was, and by the end of the meal, I was certain that he didn't know who I was. How? Because while certain guests were fawned on and chatted up, others, like myself, were made to feel like the riff-raff we are. There was no questioning who the friends of the house were and who were the confused souls who'd naïvely come in thinking they were good enough.
In retrospect, it makes a lot of sense: I later learned that Mr. Levy, the proprieter of the brand new sushi and Japanese restaurant that's taken over Honmura An's space on the Lower East Side, began his career in "hospitality" as a promoter at some Boston clubs notorious for the same class of exclusivity.
To be fair, I was there on their second night—missteps in service were to be expected, and I was perfectly willing to tolerate them—even severe missteps. But that was before my wife and I spent the first 15 minutes of our meal looking around in vain for somebody—anybody—to offer us a glass of water and a menu, only to eventually realize that the well-dressed man wedged into the sashimi bar with his back towards us and his shoulder floating over my place setting while casually chatting with the couple on the end of the bar wasn't just a mildly rude and totally oblivious customer. He was the owner.
When it finally started arriving, the food was quite good. Up front at the sashimi bar is Hiro Sawatari—the only truly welcoming and service-oriented character in the establishment, and a stellar sashimi chef to boot. A $35 plate of his sashimi served with a spicy miso sauce and vinaigrette made from the leaves of fresh Japanese wasabi root gets a smoky tinge from a brief kiss with a blowtorch.
Three types of yellowtail (Hamachi, horse mackerel, and Hawaiian Kanpachi) are all glisteningly fresh, displaying subtle variations in flavor and fat content. The best bite on the plate is the squid, which Sawatari tenderizes by scoring it into a microscopic cross hatch before briefly marinating in a sweet soy glaze and torching until it curls up like the crest of a wave.
With seafood this fresh and subtle, it almost escaped our notice that while the owner's buddies next to us were being doted on, we had not yet been offered a wine list. Instead, we were allowed to raise our hands to request one, tap a shoulder to order from it, and stare down a manager to request a second glass.
Once I'd had the chance to get home and do a bit more research, things started falling into place. Cobi Levy's last project, Charles, was well-known as a spot where the attitude outpaced the food inside. In a New York Times profile from October, a seemingly penitent Levy said of the shuttered Charles, "If my dad walked in and he didn't tell them he was my father, we would have shoved him in the corner and said, 'See you next week.' "
Now that he's supposedly changed his ways, there are quite a few dishes that his father might enjoy from his non-corner seat. The hot kitchen is helmed by James London and Marina Schulze, whose food, while certainly not traditional, demonstrates a clear grasp of the Japanese aesthetic.
Crispy Maine Sweet Shrimp ($12) are deep fried in their tender, crackly shell and served with a pinch of sriracha-scented salt and lemon, while Alaskan Red King Crab ($24) is presented equally simply: lightly spiced and broiled, with drawn butter and a mild bean sprout kimchi. That crab is ridiculously good, but at $24, it clocks in at about $6 an inch.
A pint-sized dish of Soy Burnt Octopus ($19) packs a flavorful punch. Tender, smoky, and slightly sweet, it's perhaps the only time I've had a successful pairing of kiwi fruit with a savory dish. In fact, it might the only time I've had a savory kiwi preparation. It sounds odd, but it just seems to make sense on the plate. Similarly, the Steak Tartare ($16) combines disparate elements—a quail egg yolk cured in soy, pickled daikon and burdock root, fried garlic chips, and horseradish—that come together in unexpectedly delicious ways.
There were a few duds. Housemade Tofu, which has the potential to be life-changing when done well, came out cottony and tough—no better than a store-bought block. A side of Miso Eggplant ($8) was well seasoned, but had the astringent quality of undercooked eggplant. The clever Tempura Salad ($12) made with fresh lettuces and vegetables wrapped up with tempura bits in a nori wrapper was a much better dish—light, crisp, and refreshing.
Despite the quality of the food, our enjoyment was consistently being cut short in its tracks. We were halfway through our Black Sea Bass ($28) stuffed with a deep green scallop-based mousse flavored with pickled ramp soy sauce when the dining room was silenced by a bang and a scream from the kitchen followed by an angry Mr. Levy storming through the swinging doors (to his credit, he did later ask us how the dish tasted). Later on, he noticed the stack of plates in front of us (our table hadn't been cleared since our first course) and decided the best course of action was to stand behind us, wild eyed, and gesticulate towards the busser while cursing under his breath. It's things like this that make me wish that Danny Meyer had a monopoly on the service industry.
As with the torched sashimi plate, the standard sushi and sashimi is also top tier (and top dollar). One point we found rather odd, and particularly irksome: there is a chef's choice "omakase" listed on the menu, starting at $35 a head. Generally, there's an advantage to ordering the chef's choice: you get to either taste a few things that are not on the menu, or you get better value than ordering individual items a la carte. Not so at Niko. When your bill arrives, each individual piece of sushi is listed as if you'd simply ordered it off the menu. If I'd known that, I would have skipped the mackerel for more uni.
Our meal ended with us having to request our bill three times, from two different people. When it finally arrived, we noticed that the two drinks the maître d' had offered to us on the house had appeared on the check. When we brought it to his attention, he brought the bill over to Mr. Levy, who subsequently cursed at him in the middle of the dining room, grabbed the bill from his hand, and angrily threw it away. It was absolutely mortifying to think that because of a request we'd made, another person had just been publicly humiliated. So much so that I wrote him an email later that evening.
His response was very apologetic and seemed genuinely open to criticism. That, along with the truly delicious food is enough to make me want to give Niko at least one more chance. But I couldn't help but notice this statement in his reply: The maître d' is a very close and respected colleague and friend. Well, Mr. Levy, all I can say is I'd hate to see how you treat your enemies.
Recently, in an article from Eater, Levy said of Charles, "At the end of the day, it was expensive, the food was subpar, there was bad service and a whole lot of attitude. Not really a recipe for success." At least one of those four problems has been adequately addressed with Niko.
Only after we left the restaurant did we realize that the complimentary mochi offered as the only dessert in the house was never brought to our table. We didn't go back and inquire about it, for fear of another public dress-down.
Editor's note: This review is an honest and accurate reflection of our first visit to Niko. On a subsequent anonymous visit by a different writer, we have found the service much improved, if not perfect: servers were courteous, dishes were well-paced, checks were delivered promptly; there was noticeably less attitude the second time around. We're hopeful that Niko's service will continue to improve, which would lead us to recommend this restaurant much more highly.