Shuko – Review
The thing about Shuko is that it’s strangely not easy to find online. If you google this new, sushi joint in the East Village, a fashion site by the name of Shuku New York comes up for the bulk of the first page, which makes you wonder exactly how it ever became the hottest restaurant in town. No matter: Because if it were easier to track down, it would be even more impossible to get a reservation than it is now. And the fact that they have just 20 precious seats along the sushi bar (and a few tables for two) doesn’t help matters much.
What’s all the fuss about Shuko? It’s not like New York is suffering in the sushi department these days. I used to long for Los Angeles, and more ideally, Tokyo, when craving a life-changing omakase. But with the recent openings of New York Sushi Ko, Nakazawa, and Sushi Dojo, the island of Manhattan is no longer deprived by any means.
Still, the opening of Shuko is a game changer for Manhattan. In fact, you might say that Shuko is the protype for sushi bars of the future because it’s wildly ambitious, without all the fuss and pretense that typically comes with such greatness. While sushi at spots, like Masa and once upon a time, Sushi Yasuda, tend to feel more like a somber religious experience, dinner at Shuko feels more like an exclusive party that you were lucky enough to get the invite for.
The restaurant itself is one long, C-shaped counter with several chefs behind it, a roving cocktail server, and a sommelier-cum-manager. It’s entirely intimate and festive; a windowless space with funky music in the background, brick walls, black leather chairs (thankfully not backless), and a soft, ash wood sushi counter that the chefs sand to satiny effect nightly after service. (You’ll find yourself stroking it throughout dinner.) There’s no signage or defining markers on the outside other than a street number, reminding me of all the secret izakayas and sushi gems I stumbled upon in Tokyo.
It used to be that you had to study ten years under a master to be considered a sushi chef, or at least a serious one. But those days are over. You don’t even have to be Japanese to make sushi anymore. Just look at the successful white guys at Sushi Dojo & New York Sushi Ko. (There’s even a girl behind the counter at Tanoshi Sushi.) Partners Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau are Korean and Chinese respectively. They first worked together at Manhattan’s holy grail of sushi, Masa, decamping to step into the spotlight at the more casual and funky sushi joint, Neta, on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. About a year and a half later, the two left Neta and resurfaced at a Hamptons pop-up called Shuko.
What a genius strategy to create buzz for their upcoming, East Village project. It was the restaurant of the summer (as far as the Hamptons is concerned) and a preview of what was to come this winter. But the Hamptons pop-up didn’t really do justice to Manhattan’s Shuko, which happens to be one of the most exciting restaurants to come along for some time. Think you’ve had a spicy tuna roll? Shuko will ruin all other spicy tuna rolls for you forever. Theirs isn’t raw, or mixed up with mayo, as Americanized rolls tend to be. Instead, it’s a grilled tuna belly, anointed with fiery Thai red chiles, wrapped in a crispy nori wrapper for indelible crunch. It’s spicy, yet lush, and wholly their own. While I usually gravitate toward pure sushi, I found some of the most inventive (and delicious) dishes to be cooked ones; part of their extended kaiseki tasting menu.
There’s a beautiful seared Squab with Sunchokes and Scallions, with just the right ratio of gamey to earthy flavors, as well as a lovely ensemble of Lobster, consorting with fatty nubs of smoky Bacon, Cauliflower, Celery, Maitake Mushrooms, and a delicious foil of truffles. While I’m a lover of all fish, silver-skinned mackerel usually ranks low for me, except here where it’s enveloped in a defiantly greaseless wrapper of tempura and dosed with ginger. Lest I forget a delicate appetizer of sweet, Canadian crab, mingled with cucumber and kikko flower, basking in a dashi vinaigrette. Even an amuse-bouche of homemade Mochi topped with miso & pistachio is dreamy.
You might say Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau are the next generation’s fish whisperers. They seem to know what every seafaring nibble needs and it’s often not what you’d imagine. In fact, what I love about their sushi is just how original and unexpected it can be. At Shuko, they conjure up one of the best renditions of ikura — otherwise known as salmon roe — money could buy. Lau and Kim place the glossy orange beads over a ribbon of Tasmanian trout and warm, vinegary rice, then shower the arrangement with salty tempura flakes and a flash-fried shiso leaf – salty, sweet, crunchy, and briny all at the same time. Tai Snapper gets dabbed with a potent dose of Ume, jolting your tastebuds into willful attention, and Fresh Fluke capped with a tangle of black seaweed. There are so many wonderful subtleties of texture & flavor here, like a buttery, rich nibble of toro sushi or exquisitely fresh spoonful of Monterey uni. In lieu of fish, the chefs swap out fish for Shitake mushroom over toasted rice, or offer up a final piece of lotus root and rice wrapped up in a shiso leaf – the perfect palate cleanser to segue into dessert.
A few things on the menu will happily remind you of Masa, like the toasted, homemade milk bread, paired with a caviar-crowned Toro Tartare, and an unctuous Toro Scallion roll that melts onto your tongue. But for the most part, Shuko is fresh and unique. You’ll almost fall out of your chair when they place a piece of good old American pie in front of you. (Though it is accompanied by Bay Leaf ice cream.) It’s a surprising ending for a killer kaiseki meal, but I’ll take it.
Lau and Kim don’t play by any rules here and why should they? They’re coaxing maximum deliciousness out of each nibble that comes your way and that’s all that matters. Some of the old school sushi chefs should take a cue from the thrilling food they’re turning out at Shuko. I don’t think I can go back to super simple sushi now.