You can count the really serious sushi bars south of 14th Street on the fingers of one hand, and none can quite match the magnificence of midtown’s Kuruma Zushi or Sushi Yasuda, and now Masa has raised the bar even higher. But why despair? Accept that you can’t afford the best sushi the city has to offer and settle for Ushiwakamaru, an excellent but nearly unpronounceable new fish slicer that’s still barely detectable on foodie sonar but every bit as good as, say, downtown’s Hasaki or Tomoe Sushi. It’s named after a 12th-century epic hero familiar to every Japanese schoolkid. Refreshingly, Ushiwakamaru seeks to be no more than a sushi bar, and you won’t find phantom odors of chicken frying or splattering platters of steak interfering with your enjoyment of raw fish.
Nevertheless, there are a host of appetizers available that are consistent with your main-course enjoyment of sushi and sashimi. When you order yaki sazae ($12 each), the itamae plucks a helical spiked shellfish from the ice in the glass showcase, and in a few minutes it appears at your elbow propped up on a rectangular white platter, with an odorless jellied flame licking at the sides like a trash fire next to a run-down tenement. In short order the hacked pieces of rubbery creature are boiling in their sake solution within the shell; with chopsticks you’ll tease out morsel after morsel of tasty flesh. In fact, anatomically speaking, there’s a lot more to the turban shellfish than you ever imagined. Skip the scallop appetizer, though. Offered at the same price, the result is more prosaic, and the scallop would be better raw anyway.
In the style of Nobu and Bond St., you’ll also find an appetizer of broiled black cod ($8.95), sweet and dark from its marinade, poised amid a hedge of cut greens and miniature plum tomatoes. Another good bet is chawan mushi, an austere but flavorful seafood custard that’s eaten with the tiniest of spoons. Even the house salad is memorable, on a pedestaled platter with a dark oniony dressing.
The sushi list reads like the slimy cast of an undersea cartoon, including gizzard shad (one of the Dukes of Hazzard?), halfbeak (a pirate fish with a peg fin?), horse mackerel (a genetic experiment gone haywire?), and the perpetually downcast saury. I tried to order all on one occasion, but only half were available. Whatever specimens you find on any given day, they will expand your sushi knowledge beyond the usual East Village tuna, yellowtail, and farm-raised salmon. If you program your own sushi dinner, rather than selecting a standard assortment ($19.95, $34.50, or $50) or kaiseki program ($70, $100), you should begin in the traditional manner with tuna sashimi. Ushiwakamaru furnishes some of the whitest, most unctuous belly tuna I’ve ever tasted, and the $8 tariff includes a pair of squarish, beveled slices. Then go on to sushi by the piece, and use the length of the list to make comparisons impossible at other places. On a recent visit, I slotted mackerel from the Atlantic ($2.50) against imported Japanese mackerel ($5).
Now, mackerel is one of the world’s strongest fishes, beloved of Japanese diners. But which do you think tasted funkier—the European or the Asian?