Chisai Serves Up Cheap, Sustainable Sushi in Crown Heights
This spring, a tiny sushi spot called Chisai (569 Lincoln Pl, Brooklyn; 718-398-2145) opened without much fanfare just off the main drag of Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights. The new eatery replaced Morris Sandwich Shop, which had been sitting dormant for months.
"It seems like the trajectory for success in my career is to start with a sandwich shop and then turn it into something else," jokes owner Michael Jacober, who still runs Morris Sandwich in its original form as a food truck and catering business. The joke refers to Glady's, his other restaurant just around the corner, which has been packed ever since Jacober flipped it from a hip sandwich spot into a Caribbean restaurant two years ago. "Sandwiches are a lunch food," explains Jacober — and lunch business just can't pay the bills in an ever-changing neighborhood like Crown Heights.
So now, after a few months of using the Morris Sandwich space as a prep kitchen for his food trucks, Jacober has turned it into something he hopes will earn its keep: an eight-seat sushi bar. Unlike most other sushi bars of that size, Chisai is not ultra high-end. Crown Heights is no more a neighborhood for tasting menus than it is for lunchtime sandwiches. Chisai will probably never serve an omakase, nor will it even serve nigiri.
Jacober anticipates that something like 80 percent of Chisai's business will be takeout. The menu consists of rolls, rice bowls, and a handful of sides including house-made pickles, vegetable gyoza, an especially rich miso soup, as well as heavily buttered and lemon-spritzed baked mushrooms. It doesn’t sound too far from what you’d find at the average take-out sushi joint. However, Chisai's menu is, in fact, quite a leap from the realm of imitation crab and mushy spicy tuna.
Jacober and Chisai's chef, Will Garfield, call the eatery a "New England-style sushi bar," which might be a little misleading. It doesn’t mean they serve fried-clam rolls and chowder-flavored chirashi bowls — but it does mean that the fish they serve doesn’t come from Japan (like it does at most sushi restaurants on both the high and low ends). Chisai sources all its fish from Greenpoint Fish & Lobster and Sea to Table. As champions of seafood that is both sustainable and local, these companies’ products primarily come from the New England area.
Garfield uses bluefish (and other fish) smoked by Greenpoint Fish for a "local smoke" roll as well as real crab (bound into a salad with plenty of mayo) for his California roll. The hamayaki bowl comes dotted with sweet scallop pieces trimmed from the Long Island scallops Greenpoint Fish sells at its counter.
Although the fish is locally sourced, the food preparation at Chisai is plenty Japanese. Garfield grew up in Portland, Maine, and worked from the age of seventeen under chef Masa Miyake at Miyake. As the Miyake group expanded to include another restaurant and a sake bar, Garfield climbed to the position of partner. Feeling it was time for a change, he sold his stake and moved to New York two years ago.
However, Garfield didn't quite plan on running another sushi restaurant. He signed on to help Jacober run Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s café and rooftop event space last autumn. When Garfield saw the Morris Sandwich space sitting dormant, he teased that the two should turn it into a sushi bar.
"We joked about that for a while," Jacober says. "But eventually it started to seem like a good idea."
The space didn’t have a gas hookup or a ventilation hood installed, so sushi — with its minimal cooking requirements — was actually a good idea. Better yet, Garfield's expertise and the small amount of renovation needed in the tiny space meant that Chisai took "very little money" and a mere six weeks of work to open, according to Jacober. "It could have been three weeks," he adds — that is, if they had found the right cooks a little faster.
The idea for sustainable sushi came into play when the pair realized they'd have to distinguish themselves from the hundreds of other "middle-of-the-road sushi spots serving the same product on a huge menu," says Garfield.
Using high-quality ingredients was the easiest, most obvious way to set Chisai apart. Looking around, Jacober realized that fast-casual, sustainable sushi was surprisingly unexplored territory — even in New York. Miya's in New Haven, Connecticut, has been doing it for decades, but there are few others in the area. That alone was enough to make Chisai a good idea, but there was another reason sustainable fish was the ideal foundation for a fast-casual business: money.
The prices at Chisai are astonishingly reasonable — on par with, if not better than, what you'd see at a junky neighborhood sushi joint. The majority of rolls are in the $5 to $7 range, and the most expensive item is a $16 chirashi bowl. This may not surprise fans of Glady's, where the sides are a reasonable $4 and entrees average $10 to $15. "Cheap," of course, is relative, but in the scheme of New York restaurants...this isn’t half-bad. These prices reflect Jacober’s formula for success, which he says simply involves "pricing food at a neutral price point, then putting out a better product." Still, it seems like it should be more difficult to price fish so low, given the fact that high-quality sushi means expensive sushi...and local, sustainable anything almost always costs more.
As it turns out, fish might be the one thing that's cheaper when it's local and sustainable. That's because catching sustainable fish involves none of the extra effort and expense that, say, organic farming does. Catching fish is catching fish — and if anything, it's easier when the population isn’t on the verge of collapse. Plus, "sustainable" fish are often just unwanted fish: Perfectly tasty (and accidental) bycatch or invasive species don’t have a spot on the average fish counter, and therefore sell for dirt cheap. As a result, Chisai’s food costs are low. The restaurant’s food waste is low, too, since Garfield can buy fresh fish several times a week from his local suppliers instead of having to "buy 50 pounds of tuna from Japan."
Using sustainable fish does mean that things will occasionally be out of season or in short supply. Chisai isn't serving its yellowfin tuna roll right now because the species just went back on the seafood watch list. Other items may come and go. But Garfield is always working on new specials like lionfish and tilefish, which he plans to start serving once the bar gets its liquor license. (Soon, they hope.) And so far no one seems to mind the lack of hamachi or otoro.
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.