Is Kura New York City's Best Sushi Omakase Deal?
Kura, an unlikely St Mark's location serves New York's best new sushi
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."
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.
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