Neta: Masa Alums Set New Bar For Casual Japanese Dining
61 West 8th Street, New York, 10011 (b/n 6th Avenue and MacDougal St.; map); 212-505-2605; netanyc.com
Service: Knowledgeable and professional, but still friendly.
Setting: Comfortable and low-key, elegant. Mix of sashimi bar and table service.
Must-Haves: Dungeness Crab Salad, Grilled Whole Scallop, Uni Porridge, Kanpachi & Spicy Potato Roll
Cost: Sushi and Sashimi $4 to $12, Rolls $5 to $28, Small Plates $5 to $19 (expect to spend $40 to $60 per person before drinks, tax, and tip)
I've long been scouring New York for what Ed Levine aptly describes as the "Holy Grail of Sushi": the one sushi joint where uncompromisingly fresh fish and perfectly cooked rice can be enjoyed without pretentious attitude and at a reasonable price. Where I can stop in at the bar for a simple à la carte meal, or take my wife for a full-on omakase. The kind of place where when I'm asked, "Where should I get sushi in New York" (a question that comes up with great regularity), I can unhesitatingly say: "Here."
With the opening of Neta, I believe I finally have that answer.
Translated as "fresh ingredients of sushi" in Japanese, Neta does quite a few things differently than your typical sushi joint. First off, there's its pedigree. Chefs Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau have no shortage of resumé talking points. The former was the Head Chef at sushi mega-temple Masa, where patrons drop $450 per person before any supplemental dishes or drinks. You can expect to spend about a sixth of that for a large meal at Neta. His partner Jimmy Lau was the Head Chef at Bar Masa. The two form a powerhouse that rivals that of any sushi kitchen in the city.
The waitstaff strongly recommend ordering the omakase menu ($95/$135), in which the chefs lead you on a multi-course meal that may include dishes from the menu, as well as specials that are not available à la carte. The apparent regulars sitting at the bar next to us were given slippery translucent slices of tuna marrow—I didn't even know you can eat tuna marrow. Did you?
An extra $45 for the more expensive version of the menu will net you a few extra courses, as well as a serving of their Toro Tartare & Caviar, an ice cream scoop-sized bowl of fatty tuna belly topped with a heaping spoonful of caviar that sells for $48 on the à la carte menu. It's a good deal if you're into utter decadence, though I'd personally rather save room for some of their more subtle offerings.
Neta's choice to use mostly local ingredients is a wise one that often results in surprisingly tasty dishes that don't necessarily stray far from their Japanese pedigree. Ask the tempura chef what leafy green he's frying and he'll tell you, with a glint in his eye, it's "yomogi. Traditional Japanese herb from Central Park." Foraging in Central Park is nothing new for New York chefs, but I still get a kick out of seeing good ingredients pulled from our nearest wild habitat.
Sake forms the backbone of the drinks list, with bottles ranging from 180ml carafes of Junmai ($14-20) to full bottles of high end Junmai Daiginjos (up to $350). For my tastes, the best deal on the menu is the 720ml bottle of Shiragiku Nigori sake ($58), an unfiltered, creamy but dry sake that is light enough to carry you through the entire meal.
As far as high end Japanese restaurants go, the portions at Neta are surprisingly generous. A salad of Dungeness Crab ($18) arrives with a whole crab's-worth of barely-cooked meat tossed with mitsuba (a wild Japanese herb with a flavor somewhere between celery and cress) and cucumbers in a light dashi vinaigrette. Chunks of crunchy marinated daikon snap between bites of sweet, tender crab.
In the Duck & Foie ($19, tender duck meat comes housed in a canoe of thinly shaved cucumber. It's dressed with a drizzle of hoisin sauce and has shards of crisp skin that shatter and melt as you bite into them. It's like the lightest Peking duck you'll ever taste, despite the unnecessary sliver of melting foie gras poised on top.
King Mushroom with Spicy Potato ($9) features meaty chunks of tender king oyster mushroom that get a hit of spice from paper-thin shavings of serrano peppers and a shower of crisp fried potato sticks. This isn't the only place on the menu where those fried sweet potatoes make a welcome appearance.
I've long been a firm believer that uni—that's sea urchin—works best as a condiment or flavoring. A duo of dishes as stunning in their deliciousness as in their simplicity confirms this belief.
In the Grilled Scallop ($18), a live scallop gets cubed and thrown back into its shell along with a few tender tongues of sea urchin, a knob of butter, and a drizzle of olive oil before the chef places the entire shell on top of the grill. It's served barely cooked with more of that wild mitsuba, the sea urchin's juice melding with the butter and coating the sweet scallop. I threw aside all the rules my very Japanese mother instilled in me and licked that shell clean.
Even better was the Uni Porridge ($18), a humble description that belies its intense flavor. It arrives at the table more risotto-like than congee, a deep golden ocher from the sea urchin that's melted into the creamy sauce that binds the rice. Hair-like slivers of ginger should be stirred in before consuming. This was another bowl-licker.
They say there is an art to a properly steamed bowl of rice, which is just their way of saying that it is a very difficult to master the technique. Rice is the foundation of sushi, and the cornerstone of any good Japanese meal. Neta's is exceptional. Tender, individual grains with a soft texture but distinct bite make several appearances throughout the course of a meal.
Rice dishes customarily come after hot ones and before the rice-based sushi in a Japanese meal. At Neta, that means a hot bowl of Seasonal Rice ($10). Ours came with flakes of nori, thin slices of scallion, and a school of tiny fried fish that added both ocean-y flavor and crunch to the tender grains.
The spicy salmon ubiquitous to modern sushi restaurants makes a somewhat tongue-in-cheek appearance here, served as a semi-warm tartare on top of a block of sizzling, crusty rice on a hot cast iron plate in the Spicy Salmon Teppan-yaki ($13). The rice gets a crust as good as the best paella's soccarat and a shower of shaved smoked bonito flakes dancing above it as the aromatic vapors rise up to your nose.
Sushi and Sashimi à la carte options are relatively spare but carefully sourced, offering a simple mix of fresh fish and shellfish almost all caught in U.S. waters—though of a considerably higher quality than you can get for the price, well, pretty much anywhere I've seen in the city. Tuna (of which there are four different cuts), Hawiian kanpachi, fluke, salmon, and bream are all sparklingly, impeccably fresh with the distinct tender crunchiness of the best sashimi. Aoyagi ($4)—orange surf clam—comes precisely scored in thin parallel lines, a move designed to increase its tenderness. It works.
You won't find any exotic fish delivered overnight from Japanese connections or novelties like fugu here, but that's all for the better—the chefs are wise enough to focus on what's good, not just what's exciting. Of the four tuna options available, the Suji ($7) is the most interesting: fatty tuna sinew grilled to a medium rare with a tangle of scallions topping it.
The traditionalist in me tends to veer away from sushi restaurants with over-stuffed rolls featuring a half dozen ingredients. Neta's rolls for the most part manage to be just adventurous enough to raise your eyebrows, but simple enough to work. An inside-out Kanpachi & Spicy Potato Roll ($10) is a study in how to do modern maki right: the fresh fish hits your tongue first, with a touch of heat from a paper-thin slice of chili on top. Next, barely-warm rice comes through, and finally the crunch of the nori and crisp frizzled potatoes—flashbacks from the king mushroom course.
But even Neta is not immune from the occasional Curse of the Overwrought Maki. With the Kinuta Maki Ponzu ($14), one of the specialty rolls from the sushi counter, the shrimp and fluke inside get lost, floundering amongst the sweet-tart pickled daikon and musty shiso.
Neta makes the unique decision to separate its vegetable-based rolls into a completely different section of the menu, one which I enjoyed even more than the fish-based sashimi. Flavors are more intense than raw fish in rolls like the earthy, musky, and intense Grilled Maitake ($9) or the Sweet Potato and Shiso Tempura ($7), which balances the sweet creaminess of the potato with the lacy crunch of fried shiso. I preferred both to the Miso Tofu Avocado Roll ($9)—all soft ingredients—which has since been wisely removed from the menu.
Desserts don't play largely into Japanese cuisine, but a refreshing, crunchy, flavorful Grapefruit Granité ($6) leaves no room for complaints.
When I eat at sushi restaurants, I generally end up thinking one of two things at the end: that fish was not worth the few dollars I paid for it, or more likely, not sure if great fish...or cognitive dissonance telling me it better have been worth the price I just paid. There's such a huge price gap between the best sushi restaurants and the moderately good ones that you can't help but feel like kind of a sucker when you spend money at the top range.
With Neta, I didn't just leave thinking, whoah, I just got a meal that good for that price, but rather, whoah, I just got a meal that good.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.