Tanoshi Sushi is the Holy Grail of New York Sushi Restaurants

Slideshow SLIDESHOW: Tanoshi Sushi is the Holy Grail of New York Sushi Restaurants

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Tanoshi Sushi

1372 York Avenue, New York, NY 10021 (b/n 73rd and 74th; map); 646-727-9056; tanoshisushinyc.com
Setting: Run-down and cramped, but with character. 10 seats, sushi bar only.
Service: Very friendly and about as knowledgeable as it gets—the chef or his assistant serve you directly.
Compare To: Like Masa's rowdier, cheaper cousin.
Must-Haves: Chef's choice only. Opt for the seasonal specials.
Cost: $45 to $60 depending on fish cost.
Recommendation: Go go go. You will not find a better sushi experience in New York.

I've never been to Sukiyabashi Jiro, the restaurant featured in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, so I can't attest to its quality. But the concepts of simplicity, a reach towards perfection, and the humility of a chef who is in service to his ingredients and not the other way around—concepts that the movie represents so effectively—are the hallmark of all of great sushiya in Japan.

Likewise, having no basis of comparison, I can't really say that Chef Toshio Oguma at Tanoshi Sushi is doing Jiro-level sh*t, but conceptually, he hits every mark, so I'm going to say it anyway: The sushi at Tanoshi sushi is some serious Jiro-level sh*t, the likes of which I haven't seen anywhere outside of Japan. It's a hole-in-the-wall, run-down-before-it-even-opened sushi bar in the public transportation limbo just below Yorkville on the Upper East Side, and it serves one of the best omakase meals I've had anywhere.

There are a number of things that are extraordinary about the restaurant, not the least of which is the arcane reservation system outlined on their website: You have to physically go to the restaurant—a good hour and a half round trip from anywhere you are likely to work in the city—at 2pm on the day you would like to dine to sign your name into one of only 10 seats available for each of a 6, 7:30, and 9 p.m. seating. Our hostess who doubled as a sous-chef claimed that you can call ahead, but a couple of exploratory calls I made after our visit met with no answer.

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In a way, it's understandable. With only the chef—former executive sushi chef of Morimoto in New York and Napa—and his assistant along with a single waiter working at the restaurant and a full house every night, answering the phone or setting up a better reservation system is not a top priority. If this is one of the corners that needs to be cut to keep the cost of a meal down to the ridiculously fair price of $50 (it goes up to around $60 if you opt for the seasonal menu) for 10 pieces of nigiri, a roll, and a hand roll, I can always pay a taskrabbit a few extra bucks to go sign up for me with the money saved.

Tanoshi Sushi is not the type of sushi temple where waiters float by to the sounds of trickling water and shakuhachi flutes, boughs of chrysanthemum and bonsai trees accenting sparse but tastefully appointed room. This is the kind of restaurant where you'll bump elbows with your neighbor as your wobbly saw-horse stool bucks while the single waiter squeezes behind you to refill your BYOB sake glass as the the entire Saturday Night Fever soundtrack gracefully transitions into The Band's Music From Big Pink. The brick walls and fluorescent lights say barbershop more than they do sushiya.

Meals start with a selection of small appetizers. Aside from gently suggesting fish that you would or would not like to try during the sushi-section of the meal, this is your only chance to decide what is served to you (but don't worry, you're in good hands). You might find ankimo lightly cured in soy and citrus, the monkfish liver rolled up and poached in sake torchon style, very much like the foie gras whose richness and creamy texture it approaches.

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Firm tongues of Santa Barbara sea urchin as fat as you've ever seen come piled high with mild soy sauce for dipping, their briny, metallic flavor cleaner than you knew it could be. The same sea urchin later makes an appearance paired with crisply toasted seaweed and a raw quail's egg yolk.

Then the sushi begins. Chef Oguma seasons his rice with akazu, a lightly sweet Japanese vinegar that is remarkably fresh and aromatic. He calls his style "loosey sushi," which where I'm from in Harlem would mean "sushi you buy by the single piece from a shady guy on the corner who caters to homeless people," but in Oguma's more refined approach, refers to the way the rice block immediately falls apart in your mouth, spreading its lightly vinegared aroma and allowing it to blend harmoniously with the fish without weighing it down.

To those used to dense blocks of rice served at the typical mid-range sushi joint, it's like tasting nigiri for the first time—like the first time you had a loosely packed hamburger made from fresh ground meat after a life of frozen patties—and that's before you even get to the fish.

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Tanoshi Sushi is not the type of restaurant where red-topped bottles of soy sauce sit at every table and small mounds of wasabi come piled up next to your fish any more than Per Se would leave ketchup bottles and salt shakers on their tables. It's the kind of restaurant where every bite is placed in front of you a completed bite, ready to be eaten.

At some point in your meal you'll find yourself faced with lean bigeye tuna (a cut chosen as much for its relatively low price as its subtle flavor), glistening as it slowly relaxes after being set on the counter in front of you, its flesh revealing a series of fine slash-marks where Oguma-san has scored it, gently severing the tough connective tissues that separate the layers of flesh.

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Bigeye tuna

You pick it up with your fingers—chopsticks wouldn't fare well against the loose rice—and bite in, your teeth sinking effortlessly through the tenderized flesh. The first aroma to hit your nose is of clean, meaty tuna with a hint of vinegar. On your tongue, rather than the nuance-destroying saltiness of straight soy sauce, you pick up something milder. Salty, yes, but also sweet, lightly acidic, and almost floral—the yeasty aroma of mirin in the nikiri, a thin, mild glaze that Oguma-san brushes onto the fish just before passing it to you.

As you continue to chew, new flavors emerge—a touch of heat from a thin smear of wasabi hidden under the flesh, and finally the more direct capsicum heat and bitterness of yuzu-kosho, a condiment made from chili peppers and Japanese citrus.

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Braided kohada with shiso

It makes you reflect on the power of simplicity and balance, makes you feel a bit more zen about life as you reflect back on the bites that preceded the tuna: The braided, cured shad, its silvery skin glistening on top of rich flesh cut by a whisp of shiso leaf. The tiger prawn and its sweet-and-savory profile accented by the cured crumbled egg yolk it's topped with. The pickled cherry blossom leaf that pulls back to reveal a pearly white slab of fatty hamachi belly. You're instructed to inhale its sweet aroma as the fish dissolves on your palate.

This is the way sushi is supposed to be. Simple, balanced, subtle, and restrained.

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Hamachi belly with pickled cherry blossom leaf

There's more: Glazed giant squid is scored so finely that it melts in your mouth like pork fat. Tiny squid strapped to a block of rice with crisp toasted seaweed secured with a dab of kani miso—the scooped out and pureed innards of a crab. King Salmon (oh, how pedestrian!) given new life with a brush of nikiri and a brief kiss of smoke from a blow torch, its rich flesh warmed by the rice it rests on, its fat melting over your tongue as soon as you put it in your mouth.

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Giant squid with sweet soy glaze

Tanoshi sushi not the type of restaurant where chefs clad samurai-style in perfectly crisp pressed gi artfully arrange pristine slices of fish on hand-made Japanese clay plates artfully decorated with swoops of exotically flavored sauces. This is the kind of restaurant where a brawny chef in a bandanna and T-shirt that has seen better days places the same pristine fish on top of a block of rice and places it directly on the bamboo leaf-lined countertop in front of you, or sometimes directly in your hand, depending on the fleetingness of that particular piece's moments of perfection.

And when you're instructed to eat that piece quickly, you'd do best to heed the advice. The hand rolls that finish off your meal have a half life of seconds before the warm seasoned rice begins to soften the nori that was toasted mere seconds before being filled and passed to you.

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Cured salmon roe come piled into a ship-shaped gunkan-maki, the brightly flavored beads threatening to spill over their crisp nori vessel. It looks like any other ikura gunkan-maki, but its seaweed crackles and beads pop in a way you're not used to. It's as much about textures as it is about flavor.

Makizushi—easily the most industrialized and bastardized form of sushi—is again revelatory, the seaweed snapping before melting away on your tongue to reveal the vinegared rice and mild fish within: tuna, salmon, or perhaps hamachi with a sprinkle of crisp pickled daikon radish.

At some point towards the close of your meal you'll get one final mind-blowingly familiar-yet-new experience: a small thimbleful of warm miso soup made from broth distilled from the bones of the fish you just ate, seasoned with just enough rich red miso to add depth.

In a city where sushi restaurants fall into either the transcendent-but-too-expensive-to-feel-good-about-eating-at or the cheap-but-too-questionable-to-feel-good-after-eating-at quality, we've been searching for a long time for what Ed calls the Holy Grail of Sushi: a sushi restaurant that is not only reasonably priced, but is also transcendentally good.

I'm officially calling off the search.

There is no dessert at Tanoshi, so your meal may seem to finish rather abruptly. Chances are by the time you are finished with your meal (and the BeeGees have looped back around) the next wave of patrons will be peering in from the street past the neon "open" sign and scoping out their seats.

That's totally fine. This is not the type of meal that you really want to end.

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.

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