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.
Things get even more intriguing when Wokuni’s seafood comes into contact with heat. Again, the specials should be your starting point.
There may well be a grilled yellowtail collar. If you are in the habit of ordering this at your favorite izakaya, it is a good bet that you will be surprised by how much cleaner and sweeter it tastes here.
Bluefin collars and jaws are not served often enough for anybody to get into the habit of ordering them. The grilled collar at Wokuni one recent night was one of the greatest pieces of cooked fish I’ve had in a long time, every bit of it worth chasing into the hollows of bone, skin and cartilage where it hid. It is not always available, but the grilled bluefin tail is, carved into a steak with the backbone sliced open so you can get at the teaspoonful of hot, clear jelly inside the spine.
Mr. Yoshizawa has had the surprising idea of treating the angles and corners of the sea bream’s body like chicken wings. Tucked into triangles, fried until crunchy and served with lemon, they are meant to be gnawned on between sips of sake. On the other hand, ei hire, a frequent special of cured, dried skate fin cut into squares, makes a chewy and likable sidekick to beer. Fish and chips, of course, will go with either — the fish species changes from night to night, but it tends to be extremely fresh, crunchy and light on batter.
The chips, made from the Japanese mountain yam, were never crunchy and always needed more salt. Sometimes salt came with them, and sometimes it didn’t. Those yam fries are an example of what happens once you venture away from seafood at Wokuni: The ingredients aren’t doing the heavy lifting anymore, and everything tastes sort of, well, ordinary.
Certain things are on the right side of ordinary, like the fried tofu in dashi; the warm rolled omelet, particularly when topped with grilled freshwater eel; and the tender, ghost-white baby sardines with grated daikon. Others are on the wrong side, like the grilled scallops in butter and the monkfish liver that strongly recalled canned cat food.