The Booming Era of $100 Sushi Omakases
Affordable sushi tastings at Linda Wang's (very good) Thirteen Water and elsewhere are helping to democratize the omakase movement in New York
Let me tell you about one the best pieces of sushi I had this summer.
A cut of hamachi draped itself over vinegared rice, while a tangle of julienned shishitos sat atop the fish. It’s as if the nigiri took its inspiration from a laurel wreath resting on a John Belushi toga.
The fish, kissed with yuzu, hit first with its luxurious oils. Then, the peppers kicked into gear with a smoky garden punch. The pleasure sensation was primal, not unlike when you shove a forkful of wilted greens into your mouth after a bite of bloody steak.
It’s a deftly calibrated pairing that would fit right in at one of the city’s exorbitant omakase spots, the type of hangouts where the end of a 20-course meal is announced by the ping of a large purchase alert on your iPhone. But I’m happy to report I sampled that hamachi at Thirteen Water, a tiny East Village restaurant where a tasting runs just $75 — less than what you’d spend on a half bottle of sake elsewhere.
This is where dinner barely lasts longer than an episode of “Succession.”
Within that time frame patrons bear witness to chef Aaron Liu preparing 13 pieces of sushi, each served individually. And unlike the city’s more traditional high-end omakase spots — where chefs prefer more austere seasonings — Liu gets a bit maximalist at times. He tops shima aji with crispy garlic chips, and garnishes oily salmon with a warm lobe of foie gras. It’s a heck of a surf and turf; a distinct whiff of the sea appears before the liver melts, coating the fish (and your tongue) with sweet, meaty fats.
This is the good stuff. Thirteen Water isn’t an economy-class alternative to those flat-bed seats up front, something you resort to if you can’t afford the pricier stuff. Some of the sushi here flaunts the smart knifework and lucid flavors that should appeal to anyone who cares about Japanese cooking in New York.
Why the affordable omakase boom is kind of a big deal
Thirteen Water isn’t alone in its pricing scheme. New York is deep into a surge of sub-$110 omakase spots, a tier of restaurants whose existence feels like a macroeconomic reaction to sushi temples charging $1,000 for two. This means patrons who don’t want to spend half their rent check on a tasting menu can make the style of dining they watched on “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” a semi-regular part of their lives — at any number of venues.
Or let me put things more bluntly: The boom in affordable omakases should mean that more people who love sushi will eat better sushi.
Let’s think about this for a minute. Order something at a great small plates place like Estela — maybe the fried squid ink rice — and the quality will be on par with an opulent tasting menu joint. Indeed, I like to think that’s partly why you don’t see too many Euro venues doing the 10-course thing; they don’t want to lose any more ground to the fine Libertines and Lilias of the world.
But a few exceptions aside, ordering piece-by-piece at an a la carte sushi spot will result in measurably worse sushi than at an omakase venue.
Nigiri and maki are volatile. Rice cools quickly, which means that magical moment when you sense the faintly warm grains melding with room temperature salmon belly is lost if the chef sends out everything at once. And the crisp nori on your uni temaki might go limp because the bar is being hit with 20 different orders at once.
At a good omakase restaurant, a chef will hand you each piece of sushi personally, right when it’s ready.
Behind the paywall: Are these sub-$100 omakase spots really that good? And what about Nami Nori?
New York’s omakase economy — and the fact that it’s historically skewed toward the wealthy — is just one part of what’s driving the growth of accessible venues like Thirteen Water.
Another driving factor is a single person: Linda Wang. She runs Thirteen Water — along with six other tasting menu spots, the bulk of which opened over the past two years. Ume in Williamsburg specializes in sushi sets and has a “referral-only” omakase for $135; Sekai offers a traditional 16-course sushi tasting on Houston Street for $108.