Is Kura New York City's Best Sushi Omakase Deal?
Who is smiling sushi man Norihiro "Miyake" Ishizuka? And how did this great new sushi spot come about?
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Sharing food, trading favorite spots with others, experiencing known classics and discovering new ones — sure, there's self-interest involved, but not selfishness — it's pretty social stuff. So discovering Kura in a sliver of a spot on St Mark's about a month ago created quite the dilemma. To share or not to share? There's been some sharing, but not until Tasting Table blew its cover Friday ("An Unmarked EV Sushi Spot Worth Finding") has being selfish about New York City's best new sushi spot not been an option. The jig is up. The secret's out. Pretty quietly and all of a sudden, New York has gained a brand-new sushi restaurant of a caliber that on two visits has to rank it in the top tier of the city, and on St Mark's of all places.
This open secret at 130 St Mark's Place is just steps from Avenue A. It boasts no sign — just a noren fluttering in a doorway. Behind that door is a small, exposed brick space and a sushi bar that has all the familiar Yasuda wood echoes, but manned not by the more business-like, and sometimes grumpy itamae uptown, but by a jovial, smiling sushi master, a Japanese sushi Santa Claus whose 13- to 14-course, $65 omakase is likely to be considered by the city's sushi lovers the greatest gift they've been given in a while. The pace is great, the fish makes you close and roll your eyes back, and you don't have to be a trustafarian or investment banker to afford it.
But who is this smiling sushi man? Does he work alone? And how did this come about? Enter Huey Cheng, who recently shared details about Norihiro "Miyake" Ishizuka and how Kura came to be. New Yorkers may be surprised to know that its latest great sushi spot comes to the East Village on Miyake's second New York tour courtesy Japan via Ann Arbor, and a restaurateur whose only restaurant experience consists of two years waiting on tables at Miyake's previous restaurant.
"My partners and I waitered for chef while attending school at Michigan," Cheng explained. "His food was so delicious. So much that I would always spend the money I made eating there as well. Back then, we joked (somewhat) about opening a restaurant together one day in the future. After I graduated and worked in corporate for a year, he closed down his Kerrytown restaurant Yamato in Ann Arbor, and his wife wanted to return to Japan. However, chef didn't want to go back yet, which was when I saw the opportunity to open a restaurant with him. And what better place than New York City?"
Cheng said that they chose the St Mark's space because it was the best value at the time, and because they liked the heavy presence of Japanese retailers in the East Village (when can we start calling this New York's Little Tokyo?). Kura wasn't modeled after any one specific restaurant, but designed with the idea that it would be a sushi counter where the chef's cutting board would be a stage show, a sushi setup he claims New York City lacks. But the space's New Yorkness has been incorporated into that setup. For example, the exposed brick, which Cheng believes helps to create a Zen-like atmosphere. It was important to the team that there be no "tacky glass showcase of the fish," and no barrier between the chef and the customer. "Most importantly," said Cheng. "I wanted customers to see the chef's hands and skills at a comfortable eye-level.""Inside this small, exposed brick space is a sushi bar that has all the familiar Yasuda wood echoes, but manned not by the more business-like, and sometimes grumpy itamae uptown, but by a jovial, smiling sushi master, a Japanese sushi Santa Claus whose 13- to 14-course, $65 omakase is likely to be considered by the city's sushi lovers the greatest gift they've been given in a while."
There is no menu at Kura. The idea is to feature seasonal ingredients and rotate the kappo dishes at the beginning of the meal to highlight chef Miyake's array of skills to make sure customers don't get the same dishes on each visit. These kappo dishes, which are followed by sushi, are the traditional cooked dishes from Osaka where he started out, and focus on simplicity and tastiness in contrast to Kaiseki (Kyoto) dishes which focus on presentation. "In Japan, Osaka is the mecca for cooked food," noted Cheng. "While Kyoto is not as much about taste as it is about aesthetics."
So it's all about the itamae (the chef who stands “in front of the cutting board”) but who is this guy? This is a chef with more charm and personality than many of those in the city combined. According to Cheng, Miyake was born in Shikoku, Japan, and began his culinary training at age 13. Forgoing high school, he moved to Osaka to work at Midori in Osaka, specializing in kappo cuisine. Seven years later, he continued to advance his skills by making sushi in Ginza, Tokyo, working at Hongjin.
"With skills beyond his years at age 21, he was chosen to expand Hongin to Bangkok, Thailand, where he was executive chef for seven years," offered Cheng. "Upon returning to Japan in 1971, Miyake continued to work at Ginza Hongin for five years before taking its reigns from his retiring master to become the restaurant's only second owner/chef. His regular customers included executives of Nissan, Bridgestone, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and other high-profile names in Japan."
According to Cheng, in 1989, Miyake was lured by investors and a change of lifestyle, to New York City to open Umeda near Gramercy Park, where he served "the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Madonna." That's hard to verify, but Umeda was ahead enough of New York's sake trend at the time to garner a profile of its restaurateur Scott Latham as a man with a vision of sake as the future fascination of thirsty New Yorkers. And a Diner's Journal review in The New York Times by then critic Bryan Miller, Happy Coats, Happy Staff, shows that Miyake's winning personality and charm has been a noted signature for more than 20 years (as well as his facility with tilefish). In 1996, Miyake moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., to "retire" and opened a small Japanese restaurant with his wife who continues to reside there.
So what does Kura mean and how did its name come to be? Cheng, his chef, and partners played around with names trying to find one that would fit and "actually make sense." When Cheng asked the chef for a word along the lines of a "sacred place" they were able to settle on "Kura," which according to him means "a place to store valuables." Noted Cheng, "It completely makes sense, just like we store our valuable food treasures at the restaurant."
Kura currently sources fish from four different purveyors, though at times they go to the market (the new Fulton Market and small retailers around town) to seek out more peculiar seafood. Most of the fish served at Kura comes from Japan, but over time, they hope to continue to test fish from purveyors and weed out the ones with poor quality to try and source the best of each type of fish.
"I just want to give customers a great experience at a non-ridiculous price," said Cheng. "I want customers to also get the chance to interact with chef, as I feel like most chefs in New York City don't even like making sushi. Chef is happiest when he's cooking, and I believe his happiness is contagious. My hope is for chef to showcase his talents at a high level again, and I believe New York City is the perfect place for him to do so."
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