Noz 17 (and Depression) – New York, NY
Both of y'all loyal readers will have to forgive my spotty (i.e., completely absent) blogging for the better part of the last year. I know you are deeply hungry for my meaningless musings, and the associated food, and I'm sure your lives have held absolutely no meaning without them.
If you're familiar with the blog Hyperbole and a Half, or if you've ever dealt with severe depression, you may, too, have understanding of my recent particular pickle. The proprietor of Hyperbole once vanished from writing for over a year in the midst of the pinnacle of her readership (approximately 100,000 times my audience). Her eventual explanation of precisely why she vanished speaks to me profoundly––depression led her into a spiral of anti-productivity, making it challenging to perform everyday tasks, and consequently leading to a barrage of self-critical cruelty that makes things even worse.
This happens to me fairly frequently. My initial radio silence last fall I can attribute to my move to California and new winery job, which was incredibly busy last autumn due to harvest season. But beginning around February 2023, largely because of particularly poor conditions at work, I sank back into a prolonged ride down the rocky road of my fucked up psyche. Getting out of bed was hard enough––I couldn't even imagine myself sitting down to type a review of a sprawling sushi omakase.
However, much like Allie over at Hyperbole, something eventually snaps in me and somehow, inexplicably, my depression comes so full-circle that I have a few days of manic productivity, setting me back on track. I mean, I pay Wix a ridiculously high fee every month for this pointless exercise in culinary vanity, so I'd better get back on it, kids. Seems that with some recent major shakeups in my life, I am maybe, possibly, finally pushing through to the other side, which I am cautiously hopeful about, and it's the blog's turn to get some attention (especially given some upcoming travel)! So, let me start my triumphant return by taking you back to my "birthday eve" dinner in New York City six months ago, featuring the sprawling omakase at Noz 17.
Sushi chef Nozumo Abe and his business partners have swiftly created a wildly successful and critically acclaimed mini-empire of sushi restaurants and markets in New York City (and, soon, Los Angeles) that have delighted many with Abe's at once fiercely inventive and deeply traditional fare. Opened in Chelsea in late 2021, Noz 17 is the latest jewel in the crown.
At the controls is Chef Junichi Matsuzaki, dubbed "Matsu" or "Matsu-san," who manned the more approachable Ash Room sushi counter at the Upper East Side outpost Sushi Noz under Abe. In a warm, blonde wood dining room the size of a shipping container, he's putting out a sort of "freeform jazz" omakase, as free and spontaneous as any in the world, breaking starkly from the standard structure of omakase counters the city and world over. Just seven diners per seating are privileged to bear witness to Matsu's artistry and experience one of the most daring tasting menus in the city.
When I sampled Sushi Noz, the most remarkable part of the meal was not the gaggle of impeccable nigiri bites, but instead were the wildly thoughtful otsumami appetizer courses, each of which contained an ingredient or preparation completely new to me, like a "noodle" soup using baby eels in place of rice noodles or a grilled, "pregnant" squid (i.e., filled with roe). Noz 17, helmed by a chef who "doesn't give a fuck about the Western palate," take this inventiveness to new heights. Instead of a scripted procession of appetizers, then nigiri, and then desserts, or a parade of hyper-luxurious ingredients that make sushi bros hard like A5 wagyu, caviar, or truffles, Matsu-san has turned the omakase format on its head, alternating between prepared otsumami dishes, nigiri, and even interloping sweet bites, and using unconventional ingredients and pioneering aging techniques to create flavors unfamiliar to most Western audiences.
I haven't been traveling nearly as often since I moved to the Bay and assumed a less flexible nine-to-five position, so I was happy to get a "weekend" to journey to New York City to treat myself for my birthday. The birthday night itself would be graced by a handful of dear friends enjoying dinner and drinks with me, but the night before I had to myself. Sushi in New York City is no joke, and the Big Apple may have the best sushi scene outside Japan––though of course, Los Angeles is a fierce competitor for the same superlative. So, on most visits to New York, I make it a point to partake in an omakase at a sushi counter at which I've never sat before. Noz 17, with its exciting style, was high on the list (and had a last-minute seat for one!).
The menu rotates not just on Chef’s whim, but also, of course, seasonally. In Japan, spring onions were just starting to emerge on Hokkaido, so to open the meal, Chef prepared a mushroom soup covering the first of the spring onions, which are harvested when juiciest, and topped with a sprinkle of dehydrated onion. Oozing umami and the fresh, vibrant green of spring, it was a hard course to beat.
Sake was of course the order of the day for beverage, and given it's been six months since this meal, I don't remember what I ordered, exactly, but I definitely remember the stunning serving vessels!
Kohada, or gizzard shad, is a tiny silver fish with oily, rich flesh which is traditionally marinated in a proprietary blend of seasonings and sauces and served nigiri style. A bold move to put such a flavorful fish at the beginning of the meal––kohada, if you’re lucky enough to get it, usually occupies a spot at the end of a meal flanked by similarly strong flavors. Afterwards, two cuts of light, snappy grouper sashimi were served along with an instruction to eat the first one with a bright yuzu salt and the second with shoyu. A palate cleanser already, I suppose!
From a bamboo basket ushered forth by one of Chef’s assistants, Matsu-San withdrew with chopsticks the largest octopus tentacle I’ve ever seen. From Hokkaido, the octopus was marinated in shoyu, sake, and mirin and stewed low-and-slow for hours until the chewy fibers of the tentacle had broken down. The result was a tender, slightly sweet octopus, and with each of the two slices we were once again assigned a condiment––first, spicy mustard, and second, wasabi.
Another curveball––chawanmushi, a semi-sweet egg custard which you can usually expect at either the beginning or the end of a sushi meal, came next, complete with “noodles” of baby sea eels, a trick I’d seen with the soup course at Noz on the Upper East Side. The eels really do give the texture of noodles, and if you can avoid seeing their little eyes, you’d never know the difference!
Not sure I’d ever eaten a bamboo shoot quite like this one, cooked in its husk in dashi when young for optimal tenderness and paired only with sansho chili leaf. Simplicity and humility are often hallmarks of Chef’s style––ordinary things like a young bamboo shoot can be lifted to the highest plane by his application of deeply traditional, subtle, and thoughtful ingredients. A memorable course, certainly.
I’ve had sea bream at many a sushi meal, but never a baby sea bream––young fish tend to have a softer and often fattier texture. This is a classic of Chef’s that makes an appearance regularly on the menu. Baby sea bream was scored on the skin and dusted with yuzu powder, making a bite that was at once decadent, snappy, and slightly citrusy.
Three slices of baby bluefin were gently placed on the counter, seared gently and quickly and smoked in hay. Alongside, pickled ginger (in chunks), shoyu, and horseradish shoyu accompanied the fish. Tender and remarkably subtly smoked, it was among my favorite bites of the night.
I can't get over the intricate and masterful scoring on the next course, similar to the scoring technique I witnessed on a similar cephalopod at Noz 17's big brother. This time, aori ika, or Japanese cuttlefish, was the victim of the precise slices which gave the normally rubbery flesh a melty, but still toothsome, texture and allowed the shoyu to penetrate and infuse the piece with umami. Very successful. Following the cuttlefish were an oyster from Hokkaido pressed into a nigiri-style bite with charcoal and bamboo salt and the always-favorite bite of uni, this urchin aged for maximum umami and a sweet saline punch. Wildly good.
"Build your own taco" presentations are having a vague moment these days at many higher-end restaurants, so why not make your own temaki? Charcoal-grilled scallops were handed out with a piece of nori as a vehicle to serve, the shellfish gently marinated in shoyu for a subtle and simply perfect bite.
Prepared dishes made a reappearance next, and I happened to be out of sake, so I had the somm rustle up a lovely, crisp sauvignon blanc from Slovenia with a bit of heft. It would prove to be a perfect pal for the two prepared dishes that followed––the first was a sort of mini salad with Japanese clams, a shoyu paste beneath, and verdant spring aspargus and ramps (!) from Japan. I had no idea that any variety of ramp grew in Japan, but the dish was excellent, with some vegetal and pungent shiso flowers sprinkled over the top for a final kick. The second was a deep-fried pufferfish, or fugu, called by Matsu-san "the chicken of the sea," topped with a haystack of baby spring onions. Nozumo Abe's restaurants are, to this day, the only place I've had fugu. A brush with death each time, and always worth it.
I'll never forget the sole time I dined at a sushi counter in Japan, sitting next to a Japanese man who marveled at how much I loved the ice fish course––"You like that? You are Japanese." I hadn't had ice fish since, but Matsu-san forms several of the long, tiny fish into a nigiri piece before wrapping it in shiso and steaming it, hence infusing the fish with the flavors of the aromatic and vegetal herb. An oily mackerel piece came next, mouthwateringly aged and served with the classic ginger condiment as well as a bit of unexpected chive.
Rockfish is a type of shiromi typically sourced in Hokkaido, and this slice was aged for four days and grilled over charcoal for a gorgeous crispy skin, and swam in a mouthwatering sauce of young ginger root. Marvelous.
Bluefin next––akami, the loin, was aged in the most precise combination of dashi and shoyu imaginable for a lean tuna cut with umami that rivaled many belly cuts I've had at other places. The chutoro, meanwhile, my favorite cut of the bluefin, was aged for one week, and had just enough toothsome flesh to support the impossibly luscious mouthfeel.
Shiraku is something you'll find all over sushiyas in Japan, but hasn't quite taken hold here, and that's probably because the delicacy involves the full sperm sacs of various fish––not usually the first thing Americans order at Japanese restaurants. Nozumo Abe served fugu shiraku when I dined at the uptown location, and here in Chelsea Matsu-San is also serving a risotto make with shiraku and minced firefly squid. I don't mind the strangeness of shiraku, but the firefly squid was the one thing I ate all evening that was just not good.
Signaling the end of the savory courses, always my least favorite part of a sprawling tasting experience like this, was a delicious and bracingly salty clam-based miso soup in an itty bitty cup, followed shortly by some standard end-of-omakase bites––anago (eel) and tamago (egg "omelet."). The anago preparation was the same I'd seen uptown––charcoal grilled and smoked atop bamboo leaves for a magnificently delicate texture and subtle notes of char.
Finally, along with some green tea, a Japanese white strawberry, complete with a birthday candle, closed out the meal. Delightfully sweet and exactly what I needed to cleanse my palate after a sprawling, three-hour dinner.
The Noz empire certainly has something special going on. While Noz 17 didn't completely change my life the way its Upper West Side parent did, it's still among the best sushi meals I've had in the States. Authenticity, with simultaneous playfulness and serious focus, is on fully display in this itty bitty sushiya, and it's exciting to see Matsu breaking the mould a bit with his free-form style.
I promise I will do better, Maestro fans, at providing all the wonderful gustatory content you've come to expect from this completely useless and meaningless blog. Neither of you shall have to wait much longer for the next installment, I promise!
Especially with some exciting forthcoming travel, and some stuff I've got in the back(b)log, things will get good around here again. Stay tuned.