Sushi Noz – New York, NY
It made sense at the time for me to chill in the northeast for a while after my guest presentation before heading to San Antonio for the Texas Music Educators Association conference, since I could just fly directly there. In reality, traveling for two weeks straight is… well, difficult. So naturally, I had to find some of my favorite things to fill my time while I waited a few days for my flight to San Antonio.
New York City is amazing in many ways, and I always enjoy my visits, but I must be honest that it is not at the top of my list of the most wonderful places to visit in the U.S. I generally find it magical, but stressful. There is one exception, however: the food scene is one of the most diverse, dynamic, and magnificent in the world (if not the VERY most!). As both of my loyal readers know, I plan my trips largely around food, so when I decided to spend my time in the Big Apple between my Westminster presentation and TMEA, I immediately went to work seeking out the best, most exciting new places to try.
Sushi omakase (Japanese for “trusting”––essentially a set menu of sushi and sometimes prepared dishes as appetizers) is having a major renaissance in the U.S. of late, and New York City is no exception. There are countless world-class sushi establishments to sample, and new ones pop up and are quickly decorated with accolades every year. Despite the increasing propensity of the nouveau riche who don’t really know anything about sushi (or sushi etiquette) except that an Instagram photo of wagyu, toro, or uni is the ultimate food flex, to flash their cash at these new spots (the so-called “sushi bro”), I couldn’t resist the possibility to visit a vaunted omakase counter (remember: no good sushi in Iowa). The biggest difficulty was narrowing down exactly where I’d go!
Sushi Noz is behind a curtain on the upper east side, with an otherwise nondescript but certainly out-of-place white stucco façade surrounding. Step inside and you are transported to old-school Japanese serenity. Stunning blonde woods and bamboo dividers, silent to the outside noise of the city, with attendants dressed in full kimonos and slippers. Abe-san, the austere yet congenial figure behind the 300-year old Hinoki maple sushi bar, slices up a Bluefin belly before our eyes as we enter. Nozumo Abe was born and raised in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan well-known for its glorious seafood, where he learned about fish observing the operations of his grandfather’s fishing company. Today, he prepares the most glorious Edomae sushi, using complex, nuanced, and breathtaking aging techniques that add depth and umami to each piece of fish.
I had read that Sushi Noz was a very quiet, serious experience, almost religious in its severity. This evening was the absolute opposite. The new chef for Ginza Onodera, a wonderful omakase establishment in midtown, was also seated at the bar, and the conversation (in Japanese and English) between Abe-san, his staff, and the diners was jovial and warm. I struck up a conversation with the folks next to me, a private chef and his girlfriend, and we spoke at length about our culinary experiences, many of which we shared, and marveled at the glorious morsels of fish placed before us by Abe-san’s deft hands.
The sommelier, one of the more brilliant I’d encountered in my eating/drinking career, stopped by and gathered my preferences for the beverage pairings for the evening. Joshua’s beverage program boasts a very impressive selection of wines, sakes, and spirits, most of which you can’t get anywhere else in the U.S., and I was very impressed. Austrian Grüner Veltliner was the first on the docket, this from a producer obsessed with “natural” wine style and sustainable viticulture, Franz Hirtzberger. Grüner is a great pairing with all manner of Asian foods, so this was an excellent choice, particularly given its somewhat spicy, almost salty character surrounding the bright and zingy fruit.
The menu features a handful of prepared dishes before entering the parade of nigiri sushi. I am woefully lacking on the details of each accompanying item on these prepared dishes––there were TONS of components, most of them in Japanese, and I didn’t have my notebook with me, so bear with me!
Abe-san focuses on ingredients of the season, which was quite evident by the inclusion of two different dishes of fugu, or blowfish, which is a winter delicacy in Japan. The first dish was a combination of minced fugu meat as well as fugu roe milt, called shiraki.
Fugu is one of the most toxic things in the sea, in fact; about a decade ago it developed a press-fueled reputation in the west as a “Russian roulette” of a dish, because while it was delicious, a single bite of a poisonous organ can be many hundreds of times more toxic than cyanide. The way it was represented in popular legend never mirrored the reality of eating fugu commercially in Japan, however––yes, parts of the blowfish are insanely poisonous, but the handful of people who have died eating fugu in recent years were local fishermen who didn’t know how to properly clean and prepare the fish, and there’s been only one case of accidental (non-lethal) poisoning at a restaurant in Tokyo, which is now shuttered. Experts like Abe-san know how to prepare the meat safely without contamination from the poisonous bits; there is even a certification required in Japan, as well as a means of disposing of the unused parts in what is essentially a biohazard container. Fugu liver, however, one of the most poisonous bits, is said to be the most delicious, and while it’s now illegal to sell the liver, many have been sickened by eating it.
This was my first encounter with fugu, since it was spring (out-of-season) when I visited Japan and it’s hard to come by in the U.S. Abe-san joked, “Tell me if you feel sick,” and while I knew I was in good hands, there was something sort of terrifyingly thrilling about eating the infamous “dance with death” pufferfish.
A second prepared dish emerged, resembling a sort of noodle soup. Reading the menu, it didn’t really occur to me what this actually was. “Baby eel.” Wow, never had that, I wonder what it is in the dish! Someone near me said “ever eaten noodles with eyes?” That’s right––the baby eels WERE the little white noodles.
Next wine was paired with the next two “appetizer” courses, this time from Slovenia. Joshua explained how much he loves wine from Slovenia, and especially wines that get skin contact, as so many Slovene whites tend to do. He told me the story of how he found this tiny, mom-and-pop producer, Kabaj, while tasting wine in the Piedmont in northern Italy, and immediately sought to bring them to the U.S. While Noz is the only place you can taste this stuff right now, he predicts it may be available in niche wine shops in bigger cities in the next few years. I know very little about Slovene grape varietals, so couldn’t tell you much about the composition of this wine, but suffice it to say it was complex, savory, and full-bodied from the aging process, still with lingering acidity.
The baby eel “noodles” were pretty wild and unlike anything I’d eaten before, but Abe-san had even more unique dishes up his sleeve. The next was a little grilled squid with squid roe still inside. You heard me, folks––a pregnant squid. Smoky exterior and a tender, rich interior.
The dishes (like, actual dishware) that were brought out next were quite special––handmade plates from the Edo period, around the 1700s. The restaurant had found a purchased a set several years back. This was made even more special due to the fact that we were eating the Edomae style of sushi, meaning that sushi is aged and preserved using a variety of techniques, largely arising from the lack of refrigeration in the Edo period at the street vendors where the sushi was sold. On this plate was presented a few tender pieces of lightly-seared baby tuna belly––again, a thing I’d not had before.
“Fried food must always be paired with sparkling wine; I don’t care what anyone else says.” Joshua brings me a bottle of bubbly, noting that most sushi places would just start by deploying a full-bodied Grand Cru champagne, but he waits for bubbles until a heavier dish, and doesn’t pour as robust a pairing. This German sparkler from Peter Jakob Kühn, “the lightest rosé you’ll ever taste,” is fermented on the red wine skins for all of 45 minutes, giving it an almost imperceptible hint of pink. Nice and bright, but with a bit of heft owing to its age and the bit of time it spends on the skins.
Abe-san brings out plates containing only a deep-fried meat. “Fried chicken,” he laughs, and explains that the dish is fugu, the same blowfish we had before, which when cooked resembles chicken in texture and flavor, but with a distinct seafood tilt. Quite tasty.
Sushi was next, and Abe-san displayed for each of us the platter of beautifully aged and cut nigiri that we were about to enjoy. Joshua came around with my first sake of the evening, telling me I would be partaking in a “tasting of daiginjo,” which means that the sake is made of the highest category of percentage-milled rice, so it is generally considered the purest and most prized of sake, and also commands a high price tag, since far more rice is needed to make it. I am very bad at remembering the details of sakes, but this one displayed a lovely sort of tropical nose with a balanced and clean mouthfeel. There would be two more after this, neither of which Joshua brought for me, and therefore for neither of which I heard a significant description.
In order, we were presented with the following glorious morsels of fish:
- Ika (squid)––scored liberally (and perfectly) and so rich, simple, and tender.
- Madai (sea bream)––delicate and snappy.
- Mackerel––gloriously funky, with a firm flesh.
- Akami (lean Bluefin)––look at that color! The aging really brought the lean tuna to life.
- Chutoro (medium-fatty Bluefin belly)––my favorite of the bluefin cuts.
- Otoro (fatty tuna belly)––decadent, decadent, decadent.
- King crab––I’d heard he kills a crab in front of his guests each night. Didn’t get to see it, but the sweet crabmeat was stunning.
- Hokkaido uni (sea urchin)––y’all already know.
Following the main bites, we had a few more speciality pieces:
- Lightly-seared sea perch over uni rice––smoky, with a light flesh and the saline sweetness of the urchin. Knockout.
- Tuna collar––yet another very fatty cut of the Bluefin, torched with a basket of coals.
- Anago (saltwater eel)––Abe-san smoked each piece over ash coals and eucalyptus leaves. Mind-blowing.
About midway through the sushi, after my third sake, which Joshua wasn’t able to explain due to being occupied at the other sushi counter, I was presented with a beer––Asahi––normally a wide-production beer, but this was the actual Japanese stuff, made in Japan and ordered especially for Noz. Not sure I could have discerned a difference, but cool nonetheless.
Dinner closed with a seaweed soup and a particularly funky and still-moist tamago (so good), and then a dessert that resembled a sort of Japanese black sugar jello with rum cream sauce and chestnuts.
Joshua broke out the good shit at the end of the meal, treating each of us to our choice of two exceptionally rare and interesting Japanese sochus. I was lucky enough to get a sample of each when he accidentally poured me the wrong one, said “shit,” poured the other, and said “well, now you have two.” I have little experience with sochu, but the first was a really unique style that uses the entire barley plant to produce the spirit. It is funky, earthy, full, and even a little bitter, but SO interesting. The second was from a distillery that had burned down ten years ago, so was no longer in production. This had been aged in a barrel for some time, though I am fuzzy on the details, and was toasty and round, with a distinct oaky caramel flavor.
Over sochu, Joshua called Sushi Noz “the most important Japanese restaurant in the United States” after Abe-san and crew had packed and cleaned up the sushi bar for the night. I can’t say I find many reasons to disagree. The sushi, indeed, is brilliant, and Abe-san’s aging is nuanced and spectacular and brings a depth of flavor uncommon to most of even the best omakase places in the States. While I do wish there’d been a bit more variety in terms of fish offered, such as inclusion of a beautiful piece of salmon, scallop, or kinmedai rather than reliance on the usual parade of Bluefin (FOUR pieces!), I do believe this competes for the best sushi I’ve had, in or out of Japan.
The prepared courses, however, are where Noz really exhibits a creative and unique perspective on contemporary Japanese dining. For someone like me, who has a lot of experience eating, to have literally all five prepared dishes contain a primary ingredient which I’d never experienced is quite something. Abe-san’s dishes are playful and yet profoundly serious and inspired. It is clear he thirsts for new and innovative ways to offer up the best Japanese cuisine in the most interesting, magnificent way imaginable. Watch out, Masa––Noz is in town, and with a dynamite som at his side, the sky is the limit for this place.
Just please, Abe-san, don’t start charging Masa prices, for my (and my wallet’s!) sake!
Another New York trip with some great dinners, and plane spotting at the Sky Club! Keep an eye out for a special post on lunch at Le Bernardin in NYC, and also a "double header" of sorts from a happy accident in Chicago.