At the finest sushi bars, chefs reach inside the refrigerated boxes to retrieve flawless slabs of fish, usually covered by a moist piece of cloth. These starting blocks of sushi are called neta. The countless hours of sourcing, skinning, filleting, de-boning (usually with tweezers), and in some cases aging is what allows chefs to start making sushi under the diner’s watchful eyes. It’s all in the preparation.
Most people first heard about Neta through online media. When one sushi master’s understudy leaves, it’s big news. When two Masa disciples depart to open Neta, the industry pays attention. It’s gotten so popular among sushi enthusiasts that on a recent trip to Tsukiji market in Tokyo, while enjoying my 5AM sushi breakfast, the couple next to me were discussing this new restaurant half a world away in NYC called Neta.
Is it really fair to put an upstart in the same sentence as venerable institutions of sushi? I mean, is it fair for the establishment like Yasuda, Kuruma, or Masa to be compared to Neta?! Despite some initially positive press, I wondered if people enjoyed Neta, or thought they were getting Masa for a third of the price.
The first impression upon entering Neta was very positive. The team takes pride in their craft, with an airy open kitchen on full display behind the sushi bar. Even the bartender gets his own station, fully visible behind the sushi counter (the mixed drink program is excellent). I also noticed that the preparation counter was lower than the bar top, with no obstructions, providing diners with a full view of the artistry that is sushi making.
Standing right in front of me was Chef Jimmy Lau, the former head chef of Bar Masa and the man in charge of Bar Masa’s inventory. His partner, roaming the kitchen floor, was Nick Kim, former head chef of Masa. In the era of superstar chefs jump starting careers after 30 minute episodes, these two men have each spent over 8 years studying the craft under Masa Takayama in New York. For Chef Lau, his culinary career started as a busboy, until his hard work caught the attention of a sushi master who took him as an understudy. That was many years ago, today he stands confidently at the bar, where they’ve served just about every culinary heavyweight as equals. Thomas Keller visited, twice. The only person who hasn’t visited: Masa.
There is a menu, but just put it aside and say omakase. (okay, so this isn’t Japan exactly, so pick a price level too…$95 or $135)
The first course was a nice portion of Dungeness Crab, paired with shredded cucumber, ginger, wild parsley, topped with dashi vinaigrette. I was very impressed by how the fresh young ginger root shavings had a nearly identical texture as the cucumber, but with completely different flavors. Your teeth picks up one texture, but your tongue tastes the contrast.
The second course was Spanish Mackerel Tataki, topped with a Myoga vegetable salad that was mostly shaved daikon radish. The dish is topped with tempura flakes for texture, and served with ginger soy on the side. This wasn’t as nicely thought out as the crab course, though the flavors are still superb and the quality of the Spanish Mackerel is excellent.
While enjoying the second course, I could see the kitchen staff busily placing scallops (on the half shell) onto the grill. Once cooked to the ideal temperature, it’s then paired up with a few heaping spoons of Santa Barbara uni. You could taste the butter and lime juice under all the ocean flavor, making it a good pairing of French and Japanese flavors.
Next up, Fugu, served as a tempura and paired with tempura root vegetables! On the bottom of the grilled foods is a house made sauce with just a tiny bit of heat. I have to admit, that eating fugu (blow fish) for the first time is a bit unnerving, and when your tongue starts to tingle from the sauce, it’s an eerie feeling. Chef Lau assured us at this point that only one vendor provides fugu to the restaurants of New York, and it’s absolutely safe. Irrational fear aside, the fish really does live up to its notorious name, it’s delicious.
The next course was genius. What looks like a simple tuna tartare is served over a rectangular piece of molded sushi rice, which has been grilled to retain its shape. All of this served over a hot plate is fun and also a good mixture of flavors and textures.
Finally, it’s time for sushi. The preparation of the fish slices and rice are definitely traditional Edo-style sushi, with minor garnishes that enhance the flavor without completely overdoing it. A few key highlights were the salmon from Iceland, orange clam, and seared tuna sinew.
After two rolls, you’re given a row of shiso leaf and cucumber, a palate cleanser that might be better than sushi at some other places.
As we thanked the chef for the fantastic meal and great conversations, we were greeted by a friendly fist bump, and warm invitation to return again. This made it clear, that Neta isn’t Masa at discounted prices. Much as the name implies, this is the showcase of two chefs who’ve spent time preparing behind the scenes, and are now given the stage to present their efforts.
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61 W 8th St
New York, NY 10011