Can anybody who has to think about the price of groceries still keep up with the sushi scene in New York? Just in the past year we’ve gotten at least five omakase-only sanctuaries — Sushi Noz, Sushi Amane, Noda, Shoji at 69 Leonard Street and Ichimura at Uchu — where the price of a meal, before drinks and tax, is somewhere between $250 and $300. If you were already inclined to think that the Japanese seafood game, like so many other things in Manhattan, is rigged in favor of the robber barons, these restaurants won’t change your mind.
But the next time you despair of ever tasting another slice of yellowtail, I’d suggest dropping into an izakaya called Wokuni for lunch or dinner. A short detour from Grand Central Terminal, it has been in business since October. So far it has not drawn much attention to itself.
Given the mixed messages it sends out, this is understandable. It has soaring ceilings, a backlit bar with shelves so high the topmost bottles can be reached only by a gymnast, an undulating wall of overlapping tiles that suggests Frank Gehry in his fish-scale period, and a constant dance beat in the background that won’t stop no matter how hard you cry. In other words, it looks like the Asian fusion restaurant in the lobby of a W hotel built around 1999.
The menu sings another tune, though. It is full of traditional izakaya dishes like tofu agedashi and chicken karaage, rounded out by sashimi and grilled skewers. There is one twist, though: Wokuni is much, much more interested in seafood than the average izakaya.
As a rule, the fish at Wokuni is exceptionally good and almost bizarrely fresh, shipped daily from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo or from a fish farm in Nagasaki owned by the restaurant’s parent company, Tokyo Ichiban Foods. (Its admirable motto: “We are changing the dietary culture in Japan with persistence.”) Raw or cooked, the seafood at Wokuni sets it apart from other izakayas in New York, best seen as embassies of Japanese drinking culture in which the food plays the role of the ambassador’s chauffeur.
Sushi is rare at standard izakayas, but it is made and sold at Wokuni, at very moderate prices. While many omakase chefs age their fish to make it supple and relaxed, the sushi at Wokuni is almost insolently fresh. And if you merely get a few $5 pieces of king yellowtail sushi, or $6 pieces of sea bream sushi, and maybe a slice or two of golden-eye snapper sushi at $9 each, you won’t regret it. The fish will be shiny. It will probably be chewy. The pinks and reds and ivories and whites in its flesh will be as distinct as if they’d been painted on with a nail-polish brush.
But sushi is not the highest use of Wokuni’s seafood. What the place lacks are the seasonal fish that can make a sushi excursion really memorable: gizzard shad, striped jack, firefly squid. When it comes to sashimi, though, this is not much of a liability, and the firmness of Wokuni’s fish becomes a point in its favor.
Before ordering sashimi — or, in fact, anything else — check the daily specials posted by the chef, Kuniaki Yoshizawa. They will almost always include several cuts of bluefin from farm-raised fish. If you come very early for lunch and manage to get the Wokuni don, a special that centers on a sashimi rice bowl and shrimp tempura, it will strike you as an incredible bargain at $24. The kitchen makes only five Wokuni-dons a day, though, so chances are you will have to content yourself with the kaisen-don, and chances are that even though it doesn’t include tempura, the $18 you pay will still seem like one of the best raw-fish deals in town.