For as big a city as New York City is, people are often surprised when I tell them just how small the food blogger scene really is. Not to go all “inside baseball” on you, but the foodie community is basically a big game of kids soccer. For those of you who have ever watched a dozen kids chase after the ball at once, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. People run in packs from one place to the next, leaving a steady stream of sushi donuts, gourmet pop tarts, cronuts and identical instagram pictures in their wake. But not this journalist…nay, blogger,…nay, person with a credit card and fingers. To avoid the echo chamber, I rely more on the recently opened than the tired and true. I avoid the cliche, paint by numbers cash grabs (hello Nakazawa). And I always have an open mind. Which is what brought me to Sakanaya last month. Am I a hero? Maybe. Mrs. Sushi Legend certainly thinks so.
Sakanaya is owned and operated by Chef Shigeru Nishida, a man who is all-present as the Itamae behind the counter. You may be familiar with Nishida-san from his ramen joint Nishida Sho-ten, which is literally next door. Sakanaya’s space is more minimalist than Nishida Sho-ten, and for that matter, many of New York City’s sushi restaurants. As a traditional, edomae-style, omakase-only sushi spot in midtown Manhattan, there’s nothing truly unique about the concept. But the execution, the value and the warmth of Chef Nishida are stand-outs, which is saying something considering that I (a) go to many, many sushi restaurants and (b) was completely sober throughout. It’s a good thing I was though, because I was fully able to appreciate the omakase in all it’s $80 glory.
Sakanaya has two omakase options on their menu. Interestingly enough (for me anyways), that type of menu approach is becoming far more common at “omakase-only” (or “omakase-focused”) restaurants. And like others, Sakanya has one dish that divides the $80 option from it’s $100 brother; in this case, it’s a sashimi course that’s basically a sunomono salad. Since the cheaper option came with appetizers anway – including a duck, shirako and cod platter – my unsolicited recommendation would be that you’re better off saving your money. That being said, the Shirako was probably the most disappointing thing I ate at Sakanaya. If you don’t already know, spoiler alert: Shirako is basically a cod sperm sac. I’ll tread lightly here, but it was far dryer (if that’s even a word) than I prefer.
But like any sushiya worth visiting, it’s the sushi that shines through. Salmon aburi (aka salmon blowtorched) was flamed perfectly – right up to the edge of poaching, without stepping it’s toe over. Horse mackerel (picture below left) was colourful, yet virtually translucent – basically a science experiment come to life. Fattier grades of tuna are difficult to manage because of its oil, but the Chu Toro was thick without being cumbersome, a testament to what I called “savant knife skills” on Instagram (@TheSushiLegend). Two worthy shoutouts to the Anago (saltwater eel) that was cooked (baked?) to perfection and the spoon of Uni that will undoubtedly be all over your social media channels shortly. And that’s (indirectly) the one drawback to Sakanaya; the key items on Chef Nishida’s omakase are unchanged from one night to the next, so second visits may be ambitious.
There’s no point sugar coating this – Sakanaya is small. Like “10 seats and 2 tables” small. Since my visit was earlier on a Saturday night – think the eating hours of a grandparent – I didn’t notice any space constraints, but I imagine that I would have during a busier time. Fortunately, the staff is attentive and friendly, including Nishida-San, who was chatting with customers throughout the meal. Like any meal, it’s the little things that make a difference; for instance, Botan Ebi was served with it’s head dipped in batter, a traditional approach that is frequently eschewed by far more famous sushi chefs. And the Uni on a spoon – though not traditional – is a ridiculous dish that tastes and photographs perfectly. Sure those last two points aren’t exactly “atmosphere” related, but this is my site and I needed to fit that in somewhere.