Butterfish: Good Sushi Served in an Urban Ghost Town
Photos by Zachary Feldman
For this week's review, I checked in on David Bouhadana's groovy tunes and formidable knife skills at Sushi Dojo (110 First Avenue, 646-692-9398). The young, American-born chef's love for his craft is readily apparent in the fastidious way he treats his oceanic bounty, and the East Village spot succeeds doubly in offering affordable set menus, like a procession of 10 pieces of nigiri for $45. Many sushi restaurants offer similar combination deals as part of more comprehensive menus that branch out to include tataki, miso soup, soba and udon, teriyaki, sukiyaki, and tonkatsu. But Butterfish (550 Madison Avenue, 212-729-1819), a recently opened venture from Sushiden vet Hitoshi Fujita, has built an entire concept around them.
Hidden within the interior plaza of the Sony Tower, which turns dark and desolate after the workday has ended, Butterfish feels like a secret that few have shared. It joins other "secret" NYC Japanese restaurants like Bohemian and Sakagura. Perhaps it's because of the scattered groups of refugee tourists and down-on-their-luck folks grabbing some shuteye in the dreary corporate lobby, but it feels less like a hidden gem than a restaurant placed in the middle of a defunct mall.
Visiting on a weeknight, there was no one else in the main dining room when we arrived. There were also no other diners in either of the two cubby-like dining rooms separated by sliding glass doors. Finally, towards the kitchen we spied what appeared to be a group seated at a bar. But there was no master in sight -- there wasn't even a sushi bar, just another room filled with tables.
While other itamae preside over their sushi bars with gregarious zeal or hushed contemplation, their personalities are as essential to the meal as the fish they prepare. Mr. Fujita removes this element from the dining experience, but a friendly wait staff makes up for it -- and hey, at least the fish isn't delivered on a conveyor belt. Butterfish's menu is split up into five sets named for Japanese cities, ranging in price from $20 to $42. If the format seems familiar, that's because it's more or less poached from the similarly named SugarFISH in Los Angeles, which is overseen by west coast legend Kazunori Nozawa, who helped popularize this very specific kind of Edomae sushi procession.
The 'Tokyo' meal begins with a dish of edamame and a plate of roughly cut refrigerator-chilled yellowfin tuna dressed in ponzu sauce. Out west, it's usually albacore sashimi, a traditional upheld by Kenji Takahashi (who trained with Nozawa disciple Nobi Usuhara at the original Sasabune in Santa Monica) at New York's Sasabune on East 73rd Street. The full lineup totals 12 pieces of nigiri sushi, plus the sashimi plate and a crab hand roll for $42 -- a veritable bargain.
Depending on the city you choose, you might wind up with orbs of grilled plum tomato or shiitake mushrooms, or a bowl of chirashi, sashimi spread over rice. Our first sushi course arrived as three duets of tuna, yellowtail, and salmon. The pieces all come to the table sauced, but what Mr. Fujita doesn't see won't hurt him, and the table is set with soy sauce, powdered wasabi, and ginger to use at your whim. While the fish is faultlessly fresh, and cut with enough finesse to be visually appealing, beware that the rice is served slightly warm (as is the Nozawa custom), so if you happen to get a batch that's been sitting in the rice cooker awhile, things can turn gummy.
The next platter featured albacore tuna, sea bass, shrimp, seared salmon, sea urchin, and salmon roe. Both of the gunkan maki -- wherein seaweed is wrapped around rice to create a kind of boat for some of the sea's more slippery ingredients -- featured crisp roasted nori that crackled while being eaten, a sign of freshness.
And just like at SugarFISH and Sasabune, most of Butterfish's prix fixe options end with a blue crab hand roll, although the one I received was a bit on the thin side. Between the ultra-sweet crustacean and crunchy nori, it's as good a dessert as any. And although you won't find the usual accoutrements that come with dining at most sushi establishments, this sterilized version will at least do right by your stomach and your wallet.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to New York dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.