Nick Kim is dressed all in white, standing in his open steel kitchen, wrapping seaweed around some brightly colored morsels of sea urchin gonad. A man in a T-shirt is seated in front of him, tossing his curls, talking loudly. “Hey, bro, why don’t you make that one thing, though? I used to get it all the time at Masa.” Kim delivers the sushi in his fingers. “Because I don’t have to,” he replies.
Along with Neta’s co-chef and co-owner, Jimmy Lau, Kim spent six years working under sushi master Masa Takayama, known for his grand, exquisite, gut-wrenchingly expensive Japanese meals. Kim was head chef at Masa, while Lau headed up Bar Masa and managed the fish purchasing—no small feat. At Neta, their new sushi bar in the West Village, the duo is going their own way.
Sweet old funk plays on the speakers, and the general manager walks around dressed like a lumberjack. Cast-iron sizzlers swoop in à la Applebee’s, bearing fluffy bars of hot, crisp rice and chopped salmon seasoned with Sichuan pepper oil ($13). On top, there’s a mob of bonito flakes wiggling suggestively to the tune of “Super Freak.” No, Neta is not a posh, fishy temple erected for New York’s sushi-loving suits and their expense accounts (though you’ll find a few of those guys here). It’s small, stark, friendly—an excellent place to go for a beer and a few small plates, or to allow yourself some good sushi. If you’re feeling a bit spendy, get a taste of everything with an omakase ($95 or $135), many small dishes in a thoughtful sequence.
Put yourself in the chef’s hands, and there might be fried blowfish on the bone, a delicate salad of cucumber and crabmeat, or Spanish mackerel with bonito sauce and sweet, shredded myoga. If you are lucky, there will be fresh scallops from Boston served in the shell, getting down with smoky matsutake mushrooms, Californian sea urchin, and butter. Eventually, of course, there will be plate after plate of precise and beautiful sushi: salmon, tuna belly, eel, clams. At Neta, every configuration of cool fish and warm rice is a tiny engine of pleasure.
If ordering à la carte, start with a shot of Tequila Ocho Plata ($5). It is poured table-side into a cup of yuzu-flavored shaved ice, squeezed over with lime juice, and sprinkled with smoked salt. It’s not a palate cleanser so much as it is an immediate worry-obliterator, a high five from the universe. From here, a hot rice cake carrying duck, scallions, and dressed cucumbers ($13) is a good move. So is a roasted collar of wild yellowtail ($18) served with yuzu kosho, mayo, and pickled daikon.
One of the most wonderful dishes at Neta is the uni porridge ($18), the sea urchin melted into a bowl of warm, broken rice, with shavings of summer truffle. It tastes purely of ocean and earth, like the fortifying breakfast of some ancient god of the sea.
It’s not all Rick James and dancing bonito. Neta takes its work seriously. On a recent night, a woman was caught laying slices of pickled ginger on her toro, the pinkish, fatty belly of the tuna. A silent alarm sounded, and in an instant a horrified waiter appeared at her side. “Excuse me,” he said softly, “but chef has noticed that you are putting ginger on your fish. He thinks you will enjoy it much more without the ginger.” “Ooh, you done been told,” the woman’s date said gleefully. She blushed but must have felt more coached than bullied: Before the end of her meal, she was making plans to return.
When you can get it, service teeters between pleasant and pushy. A waiter suggested with awkward force that my dining companion try a beer other than the one he’d chosen. (To our waiter’s credit, Ginga Kogen is delicious.) On another evening, a drink I ordered never arrived, but the check did. As much as I wanted this meal to go on, it was over.
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