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When the first course hit the counter, a square, matte black ceramic plate bearing a sea snail shell and an empty smoke-gray bowl, it struck me that this was an honorable way to go. Mortality, or a lack thereof, was unfortunately a topic of conversation during one of my meals at Sushi Dojo, David Bouhadana's groovy East Village raw-fish temple, which opened last summer, replacing a Polish restaurant that had been in business for longer than the 27-year-old Bouhadana has been alive.
In some future Pixar film, a spectral sea snail will learn paranormal afterlife lessons from beyond its watery grave. And, taken on an inevitable Scrooge-like tour of its fate, I'm certain the ungainly mollusk would be thrilled to see its diced-up body sacrificed for sazae tsuboyaki, a soup preparation in which the snail is cooked in its own shell. Garnished with a variant of parsley called mitsuba and strips of fried tofu skin, the soup is poured directly from the shell, aromatic and swirling with enoki mushrooms, scallions, and chunks of tender gastropod. A seasonal special, its slightly sweet broth proves to be an invigorating start.
It comes as part of the restaurant's signature $90 omakase, which alternates four courses of cooked and raw seafood preparations. The rest of the sushi bar's menu options are relegated to combinations ranging from $45 for 10 pieces to $80 for 15 pieces and a hand roll. A la carte dining is offered at the few tables scattered around the sushi bar, and unlike some of the more solemn sushi palaces, you won't be shown the door if you ask for a tuna roll (though you might be if you ask for it spicy). Sitting at a table also deprives you of the benefit of having each piece hand-delivered one at a time.
Great sushi usually comes at a cost, which makes Dojo's prices all the more welcome in their relative modesty. Bouhadana clearly takes great care in his craft, having studied under masters in Japan and California. He also spent time in New York slicing fish at the ill-fated Sushi Uo. Here, he leads a team that includes Makoto Yoshizawa and Hiromi Suzuki, the rare female sushi chef who, rarer still, has had her life story turned into a children's picture book.
This Oz-like group of sushi unicorns — Bouhadana is a Sephardic Jew, Suzuki a woman who challenged traditions, and Yoshizawa a cheerful man with deep, haunting eyes — tend to their pristine ocean bounty with a devotion that's all too familiar if you frequent the city's top sushi purveyors. But while many of those operations promote an atmosphere of serenity and hushed reverence, Sushi Dojo prefers a livelier backdrop. Vintage disco and its poppy, contemporary equals (think Chromeo and Cherub) rule the stereo, and it's common to see the chefs nodding along with the music as they portion out white king salmon or dismember live scallops.
The omakase continues with sashimi laid out across a bamboo leaf. Muscular, firm kampachi sits next to jolting nubs of orange clam. Slabs of Spanish bluefin tuna lean on a patchwork of lightly pickled cucumbers. Then, a procession of sushi, served in traditional Edomae style, the sushi chefs seasoning each piece before handing it to you. That's how golden eye snapper gets a kiss of rock salt and lemon, and Tasmanian sea trout pulses with the spicy, sour smack of yuzukosho. Another winner, the tiny white Japanese shrimp known as shiro ebi, come molded together in a single mound, looking like a glass sculpture. Dojo is also a haven for uni fetishists, who can enjoy gonads from five geographic locations: Maine, southern Japan, northern Japan, Chile, and California. The kitchen also excels with its fryer, filling a masterful croquette with urchin-spiked bechamel and bathing nuggets of blowfish in silky seaweed broth topped with slimy mountain yam and pungent, pickled sour-plum paste.
Max Lidukhover oversees a list of 40 sakes, pouring generous tastes and helping to steer around your preferences. My favorite sip of the night was a syrupy, floral Esshu Sakura Biyori, produced for only one week during cherry blossom season in Japan. Sometimes, other diners will send over cups as a gesture of proximate friendship.
Bouhadana speaks with the peppy enthusiasm of a middle-age dad just hanging with the kids. "You heard of the foodie magician? He comes in here like once a week. Always sits at the bar," he says, smirking as he slams a piece of soft, raw octopus into his cutting board before quickly placing it in front of a guest to flaunt the tentacle's elastic freshness as it constricts. Sadly, my path never crossed with the Glamour–profiled Criss Angel of gastronomy, but Sushi Dojo's bill of fare provides more than enough astonishment and spectacle.