I don’t know if I’ve been craving raw fish recently or if all of your joyless January juice cleanses are serving as a massive guilt trip, but I’ve found myself steadily plowing my way through sushi restaurants, stuffing my gullet with sea creatures and rice and washing it down with green tea. This is possibly at the expense of my job, because sushi restaurants are boring to write about.
But as a result of this attempt to exercise a modicum of restraint when it comes to picking my dinner venue, I’ve had the chance to compare a number of omakase offerings in a relatively short span of time. I don’t want to talk much about them right now — they range from delicious but only mildly interesting to phoning-it-in — but I would like to rap for a hot second on the fact that the sushi omakase at Jewel Bako (239 East Fifth Street, 212-979-1012) is bewildering.
Jewel Bako is a beautiful spot in the East Village (unless, of course, you get vertigo from dining in a tunnel made of bamboo fronds). It turns out nice fish. It’s been lauded by many, including the good people of Michelin. And it runs very smoothly and efficiently. Too efficiently, actually.
I stopped by with a date on a weekend night for a 7:45 reservation. Our order — two omakases — was in by 7:50, our amuse came out about two minutes later, and our miso soup about two minutes after that. We were granted a reprieve for about four minutes once we set down our bowls, and then we were each presented with trays of nigiri lined with eight or so pieces of fish plus a few rolls (how did they even slice that fast?!). And that was the entirety of our omakase experience. I’d signed the credit card slip by 8:15, and our check came to nearly $200 — including tax, tip, and a couple of bottles of sparkling water, but no alcohol.
This was, without a doubt, the fastest $200 I’ve dropped on a dining experience, and it had the unfortunate effect of making me contemplate the other ways I could have spent $200 in 30 minutes. I could have gotten an extremely expensive massage, for instance, or taken a flight to Washington D.C. or sabered a bottle of high-end Champagne. All of those things sound more satisfying to me than eating a tasting menu on a date that was on-par, time-wise, with a lunch special.
I made this observation many times as I told this story to friends, explaining that my meal had cost about $6 per minute. And that is likely why karma repaid me with a meal that cost about 10 cents per minute — but was equally as baffling for its timing. That meal was at Benkei Ramen (136 West Houston Street).
Benkei is Ushiwakamaru’s late-night alter ego; it slings bowls of miso, tonkotsu, and shoyu ramen from 12:30 to 4 a.m. most nights of the week (it opens at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday). If you believe its crowd-sourced reviews, the inevitable wait you’ll encounter when you take a table is worth it — the ramen, these people say, is top-notch. I think they are caught up in feeling superior for knowing about a secret restaurant.
Tired but hungry one night, a couple of friends and I grabbed seats and put in an order for two bowls of ramen and gyoza. Forty-five minutes later, when our meal — including our gyoza — was MIA, we pondered leaving. Forty-five minutes after that, we still hadn’t seen our soup, and one friend, I feared, was on the verge of a fullblown adult meltdown; he was dangerously close to that line you sometimes see toddlers toeing before they become inconsolable terrorists. Other tables were asking the waiter what was taking so long. “I just started working,” he explained, panic creeping into his voice. My own party took that to mean that by “just started” he meant he’d walked in the door at 12:25 a.m. with no idea of the miserable fate that awaited him.
Some time after that, we began loudly warning new parties of their plight, even as two gents at the bar swore up, down, and sideways that the ramen was worth the wait. False. Our noodles showed up two hours after we’d put in the order, quite a feat considering that’s not actually long enough to make the broth from scratch, but way, way, way too long to have prepped all the other ingredients by hand to-order.
To be fair, the ramen was good, made with a heady, garlic-imbued miso broth. But it was not worth the wait. Nothing is worth that wait, especially not at 2 a.m. when your night is wrapping up and you’re thinking about how instead of doing this you could have just gone to bed. This is not appropriate restaurant behavior whether the restaurant is secret or not. The emperor is not wearing any clothes.
And all I could think about as I rode the train home to my 3:30 a.m. bedtime was how much I’d have rather had a 30-minute omakase.