Category Archives: Japanese

Sushi Azabu

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It’s not often I get to eat like I ate at Sushi Azabu. For one, this restaurant is well out of my price range. To me, an expensive meal is any one that threatens to hit the $30 mark, and with omakase is priced at $100, $150, or $180 per person, Azabu is far past the point of threatening. Don’t get me wrong; I can definitely appreciate a high-quality meal. I’m not one to immediately cry “overpriced!” at anything that veers toward costliness. It’s just that I can’t afford to eat this way unless someone else is footing the bill (thanks, Dad).

A few months ago, in a fit of bitterness, I went through the menus of every single one of this city’s Michelin-starred restaurants, mostly in an attempt to prove to myself that fine dining can be nut-free. I had very little success—I ended up eliminating nearly every single restaurant before even reaching my call-and-double-check stage—but one of the few restaurants that made it through was Sushi Azabu, a one-star sushi bar on the edge of Tribeca.

Their menu looks nut-less, but there’s plenty of room for nuts to sneak in under listings like “2 kinds of starter” or “dessert,” so I called to double-check. The hostess, who was very friendly and very competent, explained that while there are no nuts currently used in Azabu’s food, there are nuts stored in their kitchen. She assured me that the nuts aren’t really handled, though, and that I didn’t really have much reason to worry, especially if I was planning on eating from the sushi bar. (Of course, I’d recommend double-checking on the whole nut situation before eating at Azabu, because I’m sure it’s subject to change.)

When Sam and I got there, the hostess confirmed that I was the one with the nut allergy—I hadn’t even had to remind her. She led us to the end of the sushi bar, took our orders, and then asked if we had any special requests beyond the whole no-nuts thing before relaying all the relevant information (in Japanese) to the sushi chef. Truly, I felt taken care of—she was just as helpful in the restaurant as she had been on the phone, and if I’d had any worries beforehand, they were gone by the time she and I were done speaking.

[By the way, Azabu is a very small and very quiet restaurant. Only an (a) jackass or (b) Actual Important Restaurant Critic™ would be comfortable subjecting the other diners to a shutter sound over and over and over and over, and (I hope) I’m neither, so I left my camera at home. The photo at the top of this post, though I wish it were mine, is from The Greenwich Hotel’s website. I’ve included a few of my own iPhone photos at the end of this post, but those are all I have. Find a few better ones here and here.]

Anyway, food. Sam and I ordered the less expensive of the two Chef’s Omakase options. For $150, we each got got two starters, an assortment of seasonal sashimi, an uni tasting, a grilled crab dish, an assortment of sushi, miso soup, and dessert. (At $180, the other Chef’s Omakase also includes a toro tasting.)

First came the starters: fluke topped with uni, and a piece of Japanese eggplant topped with seared fatty tuna. Both were great, but I particularly liked the tuna, because…well, it was seared fatty tuna. Do I really need to explain? The eggplant was a little too slimy for me, but I appreciated its flavor nonetheless, and it did go well with the tuna, so I couldn’t really complain. And the fluke and uni were both great—I’m a sucker for any (decent) uni, really, but that serving was particularly tasty, and I couldn’t wait for the rest that’d be coming my way.

Next was the sashimi: octopus, abalone, fluke, medium fatty tuna, sweet shrimp, and lean tuna. Both pieces of tuna were straight-up delicious; the fatty tuna melted in my mouth, as fatty tuna does, and the lean tuna, topped with a speck of scallion, was one of the best pieces of lean tuna I’ve ever eaten. Seriously: That thing blew me away, and if my eyes had been closed, I wouldn’t have known it was lean. I liked the sweet shrimp, too—it didn’t have any of that that sea flavor that I so hate—but the octopus was a little boring, and the abalone was way too tough and clammy (that’s clam-flavored, not damp) for me.

After the sashimi came the uni tasting, which I’d been looking forward to since the very first moment I laid eyes on Azabu’s menu. We were each given two types of uni, both from Hokkaido: one from the North, and one from the East. Sam and I both preferred the former—it was a little creamier—but both were great, and my only complaint was that there wasn’t more. For some reason, I’d imagined the uni tasting to consist of, like, three or four varieties, but you know what? These two were certainly good enough to satisfy me.

The grilled king crab came next, and honestly, it impressed the hell out of me. The meat was sweet and briny, and it came in a half-shell, so I didn’t have to fight to get at it. (What can I say? I’m lazy.) The best part, though, was the crab miso sauce, which was sweet, salty, and almost a little buttery. It complemented the meat wonderfully, but it was great on its own, too—and it was all I could do to keep myself from licking up the bits that’d spilled. (Sue me.)

And then…and then…it was time for the sushi. We had, in order: squid, salmon, lean tuna, medium fatty tuna, scallop, bonito, ikura, a mystery fish whose name I didn’t quite catch, sweet shrimp, uni, and eel—and a tuna, oshinko, and shiso roll, too. The scallop was dense and boring, and the shrimp was a little too bitter, but everything else was downright incredible. Both pieces of tuna all but dissolved on my tongue, and the salmon—usually a pretty boring fish—was some of the best I’ve had in a while. The squid stood out, too—it was perhaps the most tender piece of squid I’ve ever had—and the uni was just as good as the better of the two from the sampling.

The roll was the last of the sushi selection, and it was a lovely way to end that portion of the meal. I love tuna, I love oshinko, and I love shiso, so it was no surprise that I went a little crazy over that roll. Its flavors and textures just worked so well together…ugh. I was full enough, but I could’ve used, like, fifteen more pieces of that thing.

A few minutes later, after we’d downed some unusually good miso soup, our chef asked us whether there was anything else we’d like to order, or if we’d rather just proceed to dessert. Now, I’d been wanting to eat some near-raw wagyu for a while—I’m not kidding; it was an actual craving of mine—so we went for it: two pieces of torched wagyu sushi, please.

It. Was. So. Good. For real: It was all I’d dreamed of. It started out tender and greasy—almost like a good steak—but as I got past the torched exterior, it got chewier, sweeter and…er, bloodier-tasting. The rawest parts tasted just like the smell of the butcher section at my local Whole Foods: a smell that never fails to make me want to eat a pile of raw beef. (The way I’m describing this is probably making me come off as a total weirdo. Maybe I am, but trust me, the wagyu was damn good.)

After we finished fawning over the wagyu, and after the chef confirmed that we were satisfied with our meal, the hostess brought out our dessert. “Mango sorbet, no nuts,” she said—without having been asked (!!!)—as she placed our bowls in front of us. I’d been a bit worried about dessert, but the fact that she seemed to have taken it upon herself to double-check made me feel comfortable enough to dig in, and so I did. The sorbet was good (though it was nothing in comparison to the meal we’d just had), but I could’ve sworn it was Häagen-Dazs. Maybe not. I don’t know. But I would’ve bet on it.

…And then, just like that, it was over.

It ended too soon, but it really was a great experience. The service was impeccable, the food bordered on perfect, and the atmosphere was calm and pleasant (despite the couple next to me, who spent the entire meal trying to perform for an audience that didn’t give a third of a shit about them). I’d love to go back, but it’ll probably be a while. Until then, I’ll just have to keep reliving this meal in my head.

Find Sushi Azabu at 428 Greenwich Street, between Laight and Vestry. (By the way, the restaurant’s underground—underneath another restaurant, actually. There’s signage, but not much of it. Try not to trip down the world’s darkest stairs on the way down.)

[Edit: I’ve since returned. Twice. And I’m happy to announce that Sushi Azabu is officially my favorite restaurant. Ever.]

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Chikarashi

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Poke is New York City’s newest fast-casual trend, and I’ve been wanting to get in on it for a while now. It doesn’t seem like a dish that’d be filled with nuts, but most of the poke joints I’ve come across offer some pretty nutty toppings, so until now, I’ve had to stay away. The brute force method seems to be serving me well, though, because I’ve finally found a safe option: Chikarashi, a new spot on Canal Street that offers chirashi-inspired poke bowls.

Chikarashi isn’t your average counter-service restaurant, though. To start, you won’t be customizing much of anything; they pride themselves on their “curated” poke bowls, so you’ll just have to pick one. It’s headed by an actual chef (Michael Jong Lim of Neta) whose goal is to strike a balance between fine-dining and fast-casual, and he seems to have done just that. Chikarashi’s food is high-quality—their fish arrives fresh daily, all their seasonings and sauces are made in house, and they have actual specials that vary by the day—but it’s quick, easy, and (relatively!) inexpensive, too. The food’s great, the prices are reasonable, and…well, I’m a fan.

Before I get started, I should probably explain a few things. Poke (which rhymes with “okay,” though it’s correctly spelled without the frustratingly common acute accent on the e) is basically a Hawaiian (raw) fish salad, usually made with tuna. In its base form, the dish has heavy Japanese influences, but Chikarashi’s spin on it is especially Japanese. I’m not sure I’d even classify their bowls as poke—but they do, so I suppose that’s the term I’ll have to use.

With regard to allergens, Chikarashi seems to be pretty safe. Their menu’s small and simple, and though they do offer a rotating cast of off-menu specials, they’ve assured me (both via email and in person) that they don’t use any tree nuts in their food. It’d be wise, perhaps, to double-check on that, especially given how often their menu changes. But in general, I feel safe eating there. (Also, as a bonus: Chikarashi serves Dole Whips—which are nut-free, as far as I know—for dessert.)

Anyway. Like I said, Chikarashi isn’t Chipotle—the menu doesn’t leave much up to you. That’s for the best, though, because whoever designed (sorry, curated) their bowls clearly knows what’s up. The first time I went, I ordered the Ponzu Salmon (salmon, wasabi ponzu, shiso, avocado, tobiko, and shichimi—pictured below, under some really yellow lighting). The smaller size cost me $12.99, and I probably would’ve minded, had it not been so good. The salmon was fresh, the avocado was ripe, and the shiso and tobiko were plentiful, which I appreciated. (Everyone’s so stingy with their tobiko. It’s awful.) I didn’t taste any wasabi, but I certainly tasted ponzu—and everyone knows I love ponzu.

Since then, I’ve eaten the Ponzu Salmon a few more times, and it’s been great (though a little different) each time. Sometimes, there are sesame seeds. Sometimes, there are scallions. But the dish isn’t inconsistent in a hit-or-miss sort of way; rather, it’s exciting, and it can’t seem to let me down.

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As good as the Ponzu Salmon is, though, I think I might prefer the Wasabi Mayo Tuna (bluefin tuna, wasabi mayonnaise, shichimi, shoyu daikon, and whatever else they happen to have thrown in that day). It sounds iffy, I know—mayo on raw fish usually sends me running—but this bowl is absurdly good. The tuna, though lean, tastes rather fatty, and the mayo adds a lovely creaminess to the dish. There’s usually nori, pickled ginger, and a whole bunch of crunchy stuff I can’t identify, too—and the bites that involve a little of everything are actually somewhat orgasmic. As a whole, the dish is a just hot enough (for me, a huge spice-coward), and I love it.

What I really want to talk about, though, is Chikarashi’s specials. Like I said, this place feels like way more of a restaurant than your average fast-casual lunch (or dinner) spot, and their crazy-good daily specials are part of the reason why. Earlier this month, I paid $34.99 for an unnamed large poke bowl made with seared otoro (pictured at the top of this post). There I was, ready to order my $12.99 Ponzu Salmon—but when the cashier told me there was otoro in the back, my plans had to change.

I wanted to hate it. I really did. I wanted to not spend the next few weeks of my life having to repeatedly talk myself out of dropping another $35 on bowl of fish and rice. For my wallet’s sake, I needed Chikarashi to disappoint me. But there was nothing disappointing about that dish. The otoro, well-seasoned and perfectly seared, actually melted in my mouth. I usually hate garlic chips, but these were actually good—and I usually can’t choke down more than a bite of cucumber, but I liked this bowl’s sesame-heavy slices. I always love ginger and I always love scallions, so those two were a no-brainer—but seriously: everything in that bowl was great.

The Roasted Salmon Kama, another off-menu special, is almost as good as the seared otoro, and at $16.99 for a large, it’s certainly a little more wallet-friendly. The portion of salmon is (of course) much larger than the otoro bowl’s portion of tuna, and you get to choose your sauce, too, which is nice. The cashier recommended ponzu, so ponzu it was, and boy, was I pleased. The salmon itself was great—the skin was crispy and the flesh was oh-so-soft—and the rest of the ingredients (scallions, cucumber slices, pickled something…) complemented it nicely. In all: Great. So great. (I didn’t get a photo, but here’s one from an Instagram account I like to drool at.)

But enough about poke bowls. (By now, I think I’ve made it clear that Chikarashi’s are kick-ass.) Let’s talk about Dole Whips, mankind’s creamiest dairy-free creation to date. According to Dole’s website, their Whips are also gluten-free, fat-free, cholesterol-free, and vegan. There’s no mention of their being nut-free, but they certainly seem to be, and the nut-allergic community loves to sing their praises, so…I figured I’d give them a try.

Chikarashi sells pineapple Whips (and floats) as well as a rotating selection of other flavors (raspberry, on the day in question). I went with a pineapple Whip, and honestly, I was a little shocked at how good that thing was. It was dense and creamy, with an unmistakable real-pineapple flavor, and even at $4, I was happy to have sprung for it. (After all, it’s incredibly rare that I can buy a dessert that isn’t pre-packaged.)

Honestly, Chikarashi is strange, paradoxical. The experience is fast-casual, but the food just isn’t. The prices are annoying, but they’re undeniably reasonable. And the whole place is a little pretentious, but it sort of has reason to be. Odd as it is, though, I really like it—and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone into poke. Or Japanese food. (Or soft serve!)

Find Chikarashi at 227 Canal Street, between Centre and Baxter.

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Mika Japanese Cuisine & Bar

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Another all-you-can-eat sushi post, another apology. Here’s the obligatory “I am sorry—this is a little gross, both in concept and in flavor. Get real sushi, please.” At this point, these posts (and especially their many apologies) are getting a little tired, but whaddya gonna do? I ate at Mika, so you’re going to hear about it—and I feel bad, so I’m going to apologize.

Now that I’ve let that out, we can proceed. Let’s.

I’m not sure where I read about Mika, but somehow, the restaurant made its way onto my to-call list. I never really got around to calling, though, until I recognized their name one night as I was walking home. I hadn’t known Mika was so close to my apartment, and I guess the realization sparked my half-interest, because I ended up calling the next day. No nuts in house, they told me—so I moved them to my to-try list, and for a while, that was that.

If you can imagine a person whose cravings are even more persistent and unreasonable than mine, then you can imagine my boyfriend, Sam. For weeks, he had Mika on the brain, and no matter how much I tried to talk him out of going, he remained resolute. Eventually, as the result of a bargain of sorts, Sam ended up with the privilege (read: burden) of choosing singlehandedly that night’s restaurant—and that was how we ended up at Mika.

To the point. When we went, it was storming, and Mika seemed to be having an off night. It’s a big restaurant with lots and lots of tables, but that night, no one was feeling it. The bar was empty, the tables (save for two) were empty, and there didn’t appear to be many employees on duty, either. Sam and I attributed the emptiness to the storm, but it was eery regardless—especially as we sat alone, in the dark, in the corner of the restaurant’s largest room.

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Like Yuka, Mika takes all-you-can-eat orders via paper form. For our first round of food, we ordered beef fried rice (pictured immediately above), fried calamari (pictured below), shrimp tempura, and, of course, a bunch of rolls and quite a few pieces of nigiri (some pictured at the top of this post).

First came the fried food. The fried rice—a huge portion, which we couldn’t help but read as an attempt to fill us up quickly—was all right, though I don’t think I’d order it again. The rice itself was fine, and the vegetables were inoffensive, but the beef was tough and tasted overwhelmingly of char. Still, we chewed our way through the entire serving, hoping there’d be better flavors to come.

The shrimp tempura was better, but not by much. Again, it was a big portion—four large pieces of shrimp—but the dish was certainly more manageable than the fried rice. Flavor-wise, the tempura was bland, and the dipping sauce didn’t do much to remedy that, but again: an inoffensive dish. We got it down without issue (and so avoided being charged extra), which was what really mattered.

The calamari, though, was the stand-out. To our surprise, it was actually good—good enough that we ended up ordering a second helping. Unlike pretty much everything else we’d ordered, the squid itself was flavorful, and its texture was perfect—neither mushy nor tough, but enjoyably chewy. The dipping sauce (basically sweet and sour) wasn’t my thing, but still. I liked the calamari. It was (by far) the best thing we ordered.

Calamari from

With regard to the sushi, I had mixed feelings. (Not that mixed—my feelings ranged from “ick” to “huh, okay.”) The salmon was grocery store–quality, and the ikura was worse, but the white tuna and fluke were both all right. Some pieces were watery and had obviously just been defrosted; others had passably normal textures. The rolls (one shrimp tempura, one salmon) were bearable—though both were made with lots of unripe avocado. But then we made the mistake of ordering one more, at which point things took a distinct turn for the worse.

Neither of us had ever tried a salmon skin roll, so perhaps they’re just inherently terrible. But I’ve since looked at a lot of photos, and I feel pretty confident in declaring that what we ate was not the norm. Honestly, it was disgusting—there’s very little else I can say. (An exchange that took place 30 seconds ago, for science: “Sam, what’d you think of the salmon skin roll?” His reply: “Covered in sugar-sauce, mushy shit inside, no crunch whatsoever. Gross.” Accurate.) It came with six pieces, and we sure as hell weren’t getting any further than the one we’d managed to finish together—so we had to come up with a plan, lest we end up with a surcharge. I’ll leave the rest of the story to your imaginations, though.

Anyway, Mika was all right, I guess. Their sushi was some of the worst I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant, but it wasn’t inedible or anything—and their entrees were tolerable, at least. I’m not in a rush to return, but it isn’t as if I’m orchestrating a boycott, either. (After all, our meal was really cheap, considering how much we ate.)

In all: Meh.

Find Mika at 150 Centre Street, between White and Walker.

[Apologies for the coloring of the photos in this post. Mika has some weird-ass spotlight-esque lighting, and there’s only so much I can fix in post. Forgive me.]

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Hai Street Kitchen & Co.

A Slammin' Salmon f

I’m a big fan of Uma Temakeria, so I was pretty excited when I found out about Hai Street Kitchen & Co. Like Uma Temakeria, Hai Street specializes in sushi burritos…but bigger ones, with a wider range of ingredients, it seemed—and so I stood no chance. Onto my list it went.

Their only New York City location is at Urbanspace Vanderbilt, which didn’t sound ideal to me—but I figured they’d be worth looking into, at the very least. So what if Urbanspace is full of restaurants that are trendier than they are tasty? That’s a generalization; surely, there are some exceptions, and maybe Hai Street was one.

Hai Street never responded to the message I submitted via their contact form, and their Urbanspace location doesn’t have its own phone number, so I called one of their Philadelphia storefronts. The woman I spoke with assured me that nothing on Hai Street’s menu contains any nuts whatsoever, and that the same should be true of their other locations, too. I would’ve preferred to have been able to speak to an employee who was actually on-site at their Urbanspace stand, but I wasn’t all that worried—Japanese (and Japanese-inspired) food is usually pretty low-risk, so I decided to go ahead and give it a try.

Anyway, from what I could tell, Hai Street looked good. Their Yelp page is filled with photos of big-ass sushi burritos packed with generous portions of fish, and their online menu lists a bunch of appetizing ingredient options, so I figured I was in for a treat. If I’d been paying any attention at all, though, I would’ve realized that the Hai Street’s Urbanspace location doesn’t allow for customization—that is, they don’t offer the same build-your-own deal that’s advertised on the chain’s website and available at some of their other locations.

I figured it out pretty quickly when I got there, though. The menu was simple: five speciality burritos, some sides, some drinks, and some rolls. I was a little disappointed—I’d already gotten my heart set on a combination of ingredients—but I got over it. After a few minutes’ deliberation, I ended up with the Slammin’ Salmon (a burrito made with salmon, gochujang, romaine, cucumber, pickled jicama, red cabbage, and tempura crunch) with avocado salsa and without the cucumber, jicama, or cabbage. (What can I say? I wasn’t ready to let go of my ideal. The Slammin’ Salmon wasn’t it, but at least there was no cabbage involved.)

Even without three of its seven advertised components, my burrito was intensely flavorful—though the only reason for that was the homemade gochujang (which tasted much more like sesame sauce than gochujang, actually). As a whole, the burrito wasn’t all I’d dreamed of, but it certainly wasn’t bad, either. The romaine was fresh and crisp, and the rice was tolerable, which helped. The tempura crunch sucked (but I’ve never once enjoyed tempura crunch), the salmon was bland, and the avocado salsa would have been more appropriate on a Mexican taco than a Japanese-inspired dish of any sort—but nothing in my burrito was particularly offensive, so…I did enjoy it. For the most part.

Was I underwhelmed? Yes. Slightly annoyed that I’d just spent $15 for something so mediocre? Um, yes. Still bitter about the fact that I wasn’t able to add the pickled onions and fried shallots I’d seen online? Yes. But you know what? I’d probably eat at Hai Street again, given the right set of cravings—though probably only if I happened to be passing by. My allegiance still lies with Uma Temakeria, but I suppose there’s room for both restaurants in my life.

Find Hai Street Kitchen & Co. at Urbanspace Vanderbilt, which is located at 230 Park Avenue, between 45th and 46th Streets.

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Yuka Japanese Restaurant

Yuka's all-you-can-eat menu

Listen: I’m sorry. All-you-can-eat sushi is an abhorrent concept, and I’m actually sort of ashamed to be writing about it again. But a nut-free restaurant is a nut-free restaurant, and I don’t really have the luxury of being as choosy as I’d like.

Sushi’s tough, though. Bad sushi and those who swear by it make me irrationally angry, but I can’t shake this perverse compulsion I have to try out every nut-free Japanese restaurant I come across. It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of these places are so obviously the exact type of thing that riles me up; I read about them, tell myself I’m not interested, and then find myself there within a month or two. The food’s a joke, but I don’t care. More often than not, I end up becoming a regular at these godforsaken places. It’s insane, and I have no idea what’s wrong with me.

…Let’s move on.

I first read about Yuka on this list of New York City restaurants that offer all-you-can-eat sushi deals—a list I was reading because, as I said, there’s something wrong with me. Yuka was one of the least expensive options on the list, so I gave them a call, and sure enough, they’re pretty much nut-free. There are no tree nuts or tree nut products in any of their dishes, but they do use peanuts in a roll or two of theirs. Fine by me—so on a particularly boring Sunday night, my boyfriend and I made the trek uptown.

The restaurant’s small and dark, with string lights and origami birds hanging from the ceiling. Tables are very close together—we ate about six inches from the couple next to us, both of whom kept (literally) overflowing their own glasses with canned Coke. In all, though, the atmosphere wasn’t particularly unpleasant; it was just…strange.

All-you-can-eat was indeed available—at $23.95 per person, which is a pretty good price. Your whole party doesn’t have to go for the all-you-can-eat deal, but be warned: If one person does, and the waitstaff catches the others sampling off the all-you-can-eater’s plate, all will be charged the full all-you-can-eat price. This rule—along with the others, which concern time limits and fees for leftover food—was printed on paper and secured under a layer of glass on our tabletop, along with a partial menu, a beer ad, and a sushi identification chart. Weird, but whatever.

Ordering is done with paper and pencil, which is straightforward enough (though certainly a little less fun than ordering via iPad). You can place as many orders as you’d like, but Yuka will charge you for the food you leave behind, so make sure your eyes and stomach are in-sync, lest you end up on the receiving end of a few contemptuous side-eyes. Overall, Yuka is pretty similar to most other all-you-can-eat places; there’s one real rule, and it’s “be reasonable.” If you can handle that, you’ll be fine.

Anyway, I guess I’ve avoided talking about the food itself for long enough. I hate to say this, but…it’s actually all right. It isn’t good, mind you, but it’s tolerable—and even enjoyable, if you’re prepared for what you’re getting yourself into. The sushi is better than Kikoo‘s, better than Marumi‘s, and generally just better than I’d expect of a) all-you-can-eat Japanese and b) the particularly unpleasant stretch of 2nd Avenue on which Yuka is located. And although the variety of fish isn’t all that wide, it isn’t oppressively narrow, either.

We ordered three rolls—salmon, tuna, and shrimp tempura—and a whole bunch of nigiri, too. When it comes to rolls, I like to keep it simple, especially when I’m eating at a restaurant I don’t (yet?) trust, and that isn’t just because I have food allergies. In my mind, it’s pretty tough to disgust-ify something as simple as a salmon roll, but a roll with eight different components? That’s a whole different animal—one I’m not willing to bet on.

When we started to eat, the first thing I noticed was the temperature of the rice. Unlike most sushi joints toward the worse end of the spectrum, Yuka’s rice isn’t even the slightest bit cold. In fact, it’s almost too warm, but when it comes to rice, I’ll take too-warm over too-cold any day. Most of the fish is an inoffensive room-temperature, but some pieces are inexplicably cold, which is very off-putting, to say the least. For the most part, though, temperatures are solid. Such a relief.

That first night, our rolls surprised me. Salmon and tuna were simple and pleasant, and shrimp tempura was refreshingly no-nonsense. I’ve gotten used to restaurants putting some crazy shit (ranch? RANCH?!) in their shrimp tempura rolls, but the folks at Yuka seem to know better. They use shrimp, avocado, rice, and seaweed—no cucumber, which was strange, but fine by me—and it’s actually not half bad. (If you’re trying to strategize, though, stay away from this one. It’s the most filling thing I’ve eaten at Yuka.)

Truthfully, the nigiri was even more surprising. The salmon was buttery; the squid was nice and firm, without bordering on tough; and the shrimp was sweet, though a bit boring. The whitefish and the yellowtail were both very cold and very bland, but I got over it. I was paying less than $25; what right did I really have to complain?

And that’s the thing: I expected very, very little of Yuka, so naturally, I ended up with a better meal than I’d prepared for. Perhaps that’s why I don’t find myself descending into an irrational fit of rage every time I walk through Yuka’s doors—well, that and the whole unlimited-food-for-cheap thing. For what it is, Yuka is actually pretty great. It isn’t high-end, and it’s full of misguided Upper East Siders, but you know what? It’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s satisfying—and it’s way, way better than most other sushi at its price point.

Find Yuka at 1557 2nd Avenue, between 80th and 81st. It’s pretty far uptown, but that’s fine—you can use your train ride to mentally prepare yourself for the absurd amount of food you’re about to (try to) choke down.

[Sorry about the lack of photos in this post. I tried, but I couldn’t get a single decent picture of the food itself. It’s dark in there, and things move really quickly. I’ve failed you; try Yelp.]

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Sushi Ganso

ganso

[Edit: As of October 4th, 2016, Ganso Yaki and Sushi Ganso are both gone-so. I happened to have been at Yaki on October 3rd, and they gave no indication whatsoever of their imminent closing. They’d just redone their menu, too. So heartbroken.]

Right next to Ganso Yaki is Sushi Ganso, which serves—you guessed it—a whole bunch of sushi. Now, I don’t love this place as much as I love Ganso Yaki, but it certainly isn’t bad, and I do believe it deserves a post of its own. So: Sushi Ganso. Here goes.

I’ve only been to (read: sat within the technical walls of) Sushi Ganso once, but I’m pretty familiar with their food, as I’ve ordered off their menu from next door quite a few times. Actually, I much prefer to do just that (eat at Ganso Yaki and order a few things off Sushi Ganso’s menu, that is), but this post is about eating at Sushi Ganso, so I suppose I’ll have to focus on doing that for now.

Now, I’m about to say some moderately negative things about Sushi Ganso, so I want to put some of its positives out there first: They have a nice selection of fish. Their food is true to what it should be, and there isn’t any of that weird whose-idea-was-this bullshit on the menu. It’s a small and relatively quiet restaurant, but it doesn’t feel cramped, and the atmosphere’s pleasant and laid-back. It’s easy to get to, it’s rarely crowded, and the service is good.

Okay, moving on.

When I went, I tried the hirame usuzukuri (thin-sliced fluke with ponzu sauce) and two specials recommended to us by our server: the tuna tataki and the soft-shell crab. I also ordered a bunch of sushi (by the piece) and rolls, too, hoping all that would be enough to food to satisfy three hungry people.

The tuna tataki and the soft-shell crab came out first. Neither was all that memorable, but I definitely preferred the crab to the tuna, which was ice-cold and unimpressive, flavor-wise. I did like the usuzukuri, though—but it’s worth noting that I’ve never disliked anything that’s been dipped in ponzu sauce. In all, though, these three dishes were unremarkable; they weren’t bad, but they didn’t exactly leave me wishing for more, either.

ganso1

10 minutes later, I’d forgotten all about our appetizers—the giant plates of fish had arrived, and it was time to ogle. We’d ordered otoro (fatty tuna), uni (sea urchin), salmon, mackerel, ikura (salmon roe), and ika (squid), and my personal favorite thing in existence: a negi-toro roll (fatty tuna with scallions). Unfortunately, though, Sushi Ganso is no Hatsuhana, and while I enjoyed every bite of fish, I can’t quite say the sushi was worth the price.

The otoro (pictured in the foreground of the first photo above) was particularly disappointing. It was fatty and delicious, sure—but nowhere near as delicious as I’ve come to expect a $10 piece of sushi to be. Plus, the coloring was a little off-putting; it almost looked as if it’d been cooked. The uni was all right, though bland and too cold, and the ikura reminded me of Mr. Clean. The squid was good, though—not too tough, as squid often is—and I enjoyed the salmon, but it wasn’t anything special.

I will say, though, that the rolls are pretty good, especially if ordered as a supplement to a Ganso Yaki meal. I’m partial to both salmon and negi-toro, but you can’t really go wrong with Sushi Ganso’s rolls. (It’s not as if they have Philadelphia rolls or anything.) The only way to go wrong, really, is to try to fill up on their sushi alone. It’ll cost you a hell of a lot, and the food, while decent, won’t be worth what you’ll pay. By all means, though: Dine next-door, and sample widely—from both restaurant’s menus.

Find Sushi Ganso at 31 3rd Avenue, between Atlantic Avenue and State Street. (Keep an eye out, too—a write-up on Ganso Ramen is coming soonish.)

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Ganso Yaki

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[Edit: As of October 4th, 2016, Ganso Yaki and Sushi Ganso are both gone-so. I happened to have been at Yaki on October 3rd, and they gave no indication whatsoever of their imminent closing. They’d just redone their menu, too. So heartbroken.]

Ganso Yaki was on my radar for a while before I finally made my way to Brooklyn to give it a try. “Japanese soul food” in a super-casual setting? It sounded pretty good to me. Little did I know that Sushi Ganso had recently opened right next door—or that there’s been a Ganso Ramen a few blocks away for a while now, too.

The best part, though, is the news I recently received from Ganso Yaki co-owner Harris Salat. I’d sent him a few questions about nuts and cross-contamination, and his reply was as follows: “I checked with our chefs, we do not use tree nuts in any of our kitchens at Ganso Ramen, Ganso Yaki and Sushi Ganso.” Good news. Great news. Three new safe Japanese restaurants? The best news, really.

Ganso Yaki, located in Boerum Hill, only a few blocks from Atlantic Terminal, serves up what’s basically elevated Japanese street food. (I hate that word. “Elevated.” Ugh.) They have tempura and ramen, too—and you can order off Sushi Ganso’s menu, if you’re so inclined—but the most interesting of their dishes are those that come off the grill.

One dish that really caught my eye was the Japanese Squid (pictured above, and in the header on Ganso Yaki’s website). It’s a whole grilled squid, served in a ginger-soy marinade—and it’s pretty decent. Really, it’s more fun to look at than it is to eat, but that’s not to say it’s bad. It’s not all that flavorful (its most prominent flavor is char, actually), but the squid’s texture is good, as are its aesthetics. (I mean—it’s a whole squid, legs and all. It’s super weird looking.) It isn’t something I’d order over and over, but it isn’t something I regretted getting, either.

My favorite dish (by far) is the Salmon Chan Chan—not because I dislike any of the others, but because this one’s absurdly good. The menu describes it as “Sapporo-style miso-grilled salmon, topped with salmon roe and shiso,” which doesn’t sound all that exciting, but I assure you: this hunk of fish is not to be doubted. I don’t usually like cooked salmon (in fact, I only ordered this dish because I’m a sucker for roe). But it was everything but the roe that hooked me.

The fish was cooked perfectly, and the sauce was sweet and miso-heavy—oh, and did I mention the entire dish was still sizzling when it arrived? For whatever reason, I couldn’t get a good photo of it, but it’d feel silly to publish this write-up without a picture of my favorite dish, so here’s one of my attempts:

Ganso Yaki's salmon chan-chan

[Since publishing this post, I’ve eaten at Ganso Yaki a few more times, and I’d like to revise what I said above. Very often, the sauce on the Salmon Chan Chan is just too strong (and too abundant!). On such off days, the dishsort of sucks, so…I’d like to name a new favorite dish: the Hamachi Kama (yellowtail collar), also from the grill. It’s consistently delicious, and there’s no sauce to worry about, which is a nice plus.]

I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed the Yaki Shumai (pan-fried pork dumplings), the Kamo Kushiyaki (glazed duck on a skewer), and the Sapporo Ramen—though the latter reminded me a bit too much of chicken noodle soup, and was definitely my least favorite of the bunch. The shumai are delicious—though they do arrive in a scalding pan, which makes me nervous—and the duck is tender and sweet, if a bit boring.

Overall, Ganso Yaki is a solid restaurant. It’s one of those places where you can order freely without having to worry about ending up with something bad. Plus, the ambiance is pleasant—usually, it isn’t too loud, and usually, the music’s good—and the servers are friendly, which never hurts. The prices aren’t low, but they aren’t high, either—and if you’re dining between 5 and 7pm, a few dishes are discounted to $5, and select rolls (from next-door) to $4.

Find Ganso Yaki at 515 Atlantic Avenue, on the corner of Atlantic and 3rd. And stay tuned—because Sushi Ganso’s up next.

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Kikoo Sushi: For when you’re feeling gluttonous

Shrimp tempura from Kikoo Sushi

I found out about Kikoo on Groupon, of all places. Whenever I’d search for sushi, Kikoo would be there, right at the top: “Up To 53% off All-You-Can-Eat Sushi, Sashimi, and Teriyaki with Drinks.” Honestly, all-you-can-eat sushi sounds like a terrible idea, so I was never really all that tempted to click the link. I guess it got to me, though, because—well, I just got back from my first Kikoo feast.

Before I bought the Groupon, I called Kikoo to ask about allergens, and after some initial confusion, the woman on the phone informed me that they are no tree nuts in anything on their menu, but that one roll—an avocado roll—comes topped with peanuts. I double-checked with the hostess when I arrived, too, and she confirmed what I was told on the phone, so I figured I was good to go.

When we sat down—I’d brought Sam along, as I wasn’t about to try to take on any sort of all-you-can-eat deal on my own—we were given an iPad with which to order. No need to flag down a server at Kikoo; you just throw what you want into a (digital) shopping cart of sorts and then hit the order button. You’re limited to 10 items at a time, but you can order as often as you’d like—and the food just keeps coming. And coming. And coming.

Now, let me make this clear: I think all-you-can-eat dining is inherently revolting. It’s gluttonous, greedy, and quintessentially American in that way that never fails to evoke a whole lot of shame—but it’s also kind of fun to be able to order whatever (and however much) you want without having to worry about over-spending. It’s nice to be able to sample widely, too, which was what I tried to do at Kikoo.

Three hand rolls from Kikoo Sushi

Unfortunately, nothing was all that great—but I didn’t really expect it to be, given that I was paying by the two-hour block. The rolls (both hand rolls—pictured above—and cut rolls) were probably the best thing I tried. Unlike the sushi and sashimi, the fish in the rolls wasn’t ice-cold—which did a lot for their cause—and unlike the fried dishes, they (obviously) weren’t super greasy, which was refreshing, at least. A few of the rolls, though, were filled with this sickeningly sweet rice; those were probably the worst thing I ate.

The salmon cut roll and the salmon hand roll were both decent, and the salmon-avocado hand roll was actually pretty good. I liked the shrimp tempura (pictured at the top of this post), too—but I’m pretty sure that’s at least partially due to the fact that I’ll probably enjoy any fried shrimp dish that’s put in front of me. The sweet potato tempura was a little worse (but still all right), and the soft-shell crab was awful. I wouldn’t have been surprised if our server had returned to tell us our crab was actually chicken, and that we’d received it because of a kitchen mix-up. But no, it was crab—and yes, it was bad.

An assortment of sushi and sashimi from Kikoo Sushi

As I mentioned, the sushi and sashimi (pictured immediately above) were both pretty much freezing—and the flavors weren’t all that, either. On top of that, the selection was pretty small: salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and snapper, when I was there. I guess it makes sense, though. Can’t really serve expensive fish in an all-you-can-eat setting. (But I can dream, can’t I?) Still, there was one problem I couldn’t quite get over: the all-around lack of flavor in all of the fish—and the soy sauce, too. Heartbreaking…and infuriating, when it came to the soy.

But for the most part, what Kikoo lacked in quality, it made up for in quantity, so I did end up leaving satisfied. Not so satisfied that I’m itching to go back, mind you—but pleasantly full nonetheless. (Who am I kidding? I’ll most likely be back within the next few months. You know, once I’ve forgotten just how cold the fish was. It was a safe meal, after all.)

If you, too, are in the mood to stuff your face with low-to-average-quality sushi, you can find Kikoo at 141 1st Avenue, between 8th and 9th. (And if you’re interested, there’s a Groupon available that’ll save you a decent amount of money.)

[Three or four months after I started eating at Kikoo—and believe me, I started—they added (cooked) salmon belly to the menu, and it’s awesome. I took down, like, four orders the other night. (I’m disgusting.) Anyway, I think I’ve figured out how best to approach Kikoo…for me, at least: some sashimi (salmon), a roll or two (…salmon), and a few—only a few—cooked dishes (tempura, katsu, salmon belly, whatever). I don’t know why their salmon sucks so much less than their other fish, but it does. And too many fried dishes make for a bad night indeed.]

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Smorgasburg, Part I: Ramen Burger

Ramen burgers, mid-assembly

If you’ve been on the Internet at any point in the last few years, you’ve probably already heard of Keiko Shimamoto’s Ramen Burger. Every weekend, his stand opens at Smorgasburg to sell a single signature product: you guessed it, the ramen burger—a beef patty, arugula, scallions, and a whole lot of sauce, all between two ramen buns. And although they’re gimmicky as hell and probably super overhyped, I’ve been curious about these monstrosities for a while now.

For some reason, I sort of just assumed I wouldn’t be able to eat at Ramen Burger—or at any Smorgasburg stand, for that matter. I tried making my own ramen burger (no small feat), but it turned out to be a pretty boring meal for the amount of effort it took. So I forgot all about noodle buns for a while—that is, until I got the idea to contact Ramen Burger with a few allergy-related questions. Within a few days, I received the following reply:

Our food is safe to eat for people with nut allergies. There are no tree nuts (or any other nut allergens) in the ramen burger. We do use sesame oil though. There is no cross contamination of tree nuts either.

Good news! I can’t quite categorize Ramen Burger as truly nut-free, as I can’t imagine they’re in a position to make any sort of guarantees, but they’re a workable alternative—for me, at least. So onto my list it went.

This past Saturday, Sam and I took the ferry to Williamsburg, where we met up with my dad and ventured into Smorgasburg in search of Ramen Burger’s stand. It didn’t take long for us to find it—the stand drew a huge crowd, as it tends to—but it did take long for us to make our way to the front of the line. 30 minutes and $10 (each!) later, though, we had our burgers—and that was all that mattered.

Ramen buns on the griddle

There’s no denying that the ramen burger is good. It’s greasy, but not overly so—and it’s absolutely packed with flavor. Sesame oil, soy, and some sort of super-sugary Sriracha-ketchup hybrid kind of dominate the whole thing, as the ramen bun itself it pretty bland, but the noodles do add a nice texture. Definitely more interesting than your average bread-based bun. The patty was thin and definitely overcooked, though—and I feel obligated to say so to anyone who’s considering making the trek to Smorgasburg and, you know, getting in line to pay $10 for a burger.

As we were eating, a group of men approached us and asked whether the burger was really worth the wait. They seemed to really not want to spend their Saturday afternoon waiting in line for a hyped-up GimmickBurger, if that was all it was going to be—and who could blame them?  I was busy trying (and failing) to get a decent photo of the thing, so my dad—forever on the lookout for a chance to talk about food—answered immediately: “No.”

His explanation was fair: The ramen burger is good, but it’s not wait-a-half-hour-to-spend-$10 good. Still, it certainly is interesting—and perhaps worth a try, but not because it’s anything special, culinarily speaking. For better or worse, the ramen burger is iconic—and that’s why it’s worth finding out what it’s like for yourself. And for me, there’s that added bonus of being able to actually try one of those strange delicacies everyone’s always talking about. Overhyped or not, that process is pretty exciting.

And that was my favorite part, I think: the excitement that comes with being able to partake. As those with food allergies know, it can be really gratifying to finally be able get in on something food-related ritual that most others can get in on without a second thought. Ramen Burger offers the opportunity to partake—and that, to me, is worth the wait. (Oh, and there’s that whole bit about it tasting good, too.)

Anyway, if you, too, would like to partake—and if Ramen Burger’s incidental lack of nuts is enough to make you feel safe—you can do so at Smorgasburg, in Williamsburg (90 Kent Avenue) on Saturdays, and in Prospect Park (near the entrance on Lincoln Road) on Sundays. Bring cash, though—and maybe a snack or two.

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Uma Temakeria and the Sushi Burrito

A sushi burrito from Uma Temakeria

Edit: Closed. Sorry.

Imagine a Chipotle, Just Salad, or Subway (ick) type of place—and then forget all about those, because Uma Temakeria is so much better. It’s another trendy fast-casual restaurant, sure. But instead of burritos, salads, or sandwiches, Uma Temakeria specializes in Japanese hand rolls, made however the hell you want.

Apparently, they brought NYC its very first sushi burrito. They also have chirashi (bowls) and temaki (hand rolls), but I, forever drawn to gimmick and novelty, had to go straight to the burrito. (Seriously. Gimmicky foods, and in particular, food mashups, are my weakness. Ramen burgersLuther burgers, cronuts, cragels—if it sounds like a terrible idea, odds are it makes me drool.)

I’ve been reading about (and downright lusting after) the sushi burrito for at least a year now, but it wasn’t until this week that I even thought to look into where it’s sold and whether I might be able to eat it. All my Google searches led me to Uma Temakeria, which looked promising—their menu was straightforward and their ingredients were simple, at least—so I decided to give them a call.

Sure enough, there are no nuts on their menu or in their kitchen. Still, I’ve categorized Uma Temakeria as “technically not nut-free,” as I don’t have any reason to believe they collect allergen statements from their vendors, nor do they make any guarantees about cross-contamination. I do think, though, that this place is about as low-risk as they come.

Now, I’ve literally been fantasizing about a Chipotle-style Japanese place since Chipotle first got me hooked on customizable fast-casual, so imagine my delight when Uma Temakeria turned out to be just that. For my first sushi burrito, I went simple: white rice, salmon, tuna, ponzu sauce, avocado, tobiko, sesame seeds, and scallions.

Now, the fish wasn’t the world’s best—the tuna was bland, and the salmon wasn’t all that much better—but it certainly wasn’t bad, and everything else in my burrito was fresh and flavorful. Gimmicks aside, that thing was pretty good. Good enough, at least, to offset all the “I’m a huge tool” feelings that came up in the eating process.

I do have two complaints, though. First: For $14 ($11 for the burrito, plus an additional $3 for avocado and tobiko), it wasn’t a lot of food; I ended up feeling the need to supplement my meal with a bagel from The Donut Pub, which is right around the corner. Second: The burrito itself was extremely unruly. I don’t think it’s even possible to get through one of those things without a third of its contents spilling onto your tray. Not ideal.

But those minor complaints aside, I do recommend Uma Temakeria. The employees are friendly, there’s a huge variety of fillings to mix and match, and it’s all decently healthy, too. Plus, the seafood’s all sustainably-sourced. I truly can’t wait to go back.

Find this strange creation—and its two far-less-strange companions—at 64 7th Avenue (right off 14th street) or at Gotham West Market (600 11th Avenue, between 44th and 45th).

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