Food

There’s a Sushi Showdown Brewing in Chelsea

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Over the course of several decades, expat and enthusiast restaurateurs have sought to introduce a multitude of Japanese dining trends and cooking styles to New Yorkers. There are the sushi temples with eponymous itamae (chefs) like Ichimura, Yasuda, and Nakazawa. There are countless Americanized sushi joints trading in cream cheese–filled Philadelphia rolls. There are izakayas and kaiseki restaurants, and there are dish-and-ingredient-specific outlets like Katsuya (gloriously crunchy pork and chicken cutlets). There are green tea destinations like MatchaBar. And there are sushi derivatives that staked a claim in the convenience market; purveyors devoted to conveyor belt sushi, rice balls, and rice burgers have all set up shop, to varying results.

This fall, two fast-casual operations selling temaki — conical sushi rolls made from wrapping rice and fish inside a single sheet of uncut nori seaweed — landed mere blocks from each other in Chelsea. Temaki may have originated in Japan, but the concept of serving hand rolls to go has proven most popular in cities like Milan, London, and São Paulo. With two maki missionaries looking to spread the hand roll gospel, will either of them succeed? What’s happening here, from the looks of it, is a good old-fashioned sushi showdown.

You may have already heard of Uma Temakeria (64 Seventh Avenue, 646-360-3260) thanks to its respected co-founder Chris Jaeckle, who’s cooked in and led many impressive kitchens, from Larry Forgione’s once pioneering An American Place to Tabla and Eleven Madison Park. Perhaps most pertinently to this subject, Jaeckle was sous chef of Morimoto, the glittery meatpacking district ode to the food world’s most excellent karaokist. In October, the current All’onda executive chef opened Uma. At All’onda, Jaeckle seamlessly melds Italian and Japanese cuisines. For Uma, co-owner Cynthia Kueppers has tasked him with perfecting the hand roll, which they hope will garner the same amount of fervor in New York as it has in Brazil, where Kueppers first encountered the healthy, fast-casual sushi format.

But wait. What’s this? Two short blocks and one avenue over, temaki shop Boom Sushi (139 Eighth Avenue, 646-838-6494) opened a few months before Uma, debuting in a sashimi slice–sized sliver of a space. It hasn’t garnered as much media fanfare, but co-creator Edwyn Ferrari also worked for Masaharu Morimoto as the executive chef of the Philadelphia flagship, which preceded the NYC outpost by half a decade. Ferrari and Morimoto met while working for Nobu Matsuhisa at Nobu, before the Iron Chef was a household name.

Both restaurants make sushi to order, unlike midtown U.K. takeout sushi import Wasabi Bento, which wraps everything from nigiri sushi pieces to cut maki roll pieces individually. Uma’s temaki artists do their rolling in plain sight, like the burrito and bowl craftspeople at Chipotle. Boom’s kitchen crew operates slightly out of view and packages hand rolls in boxes that make them look precious; compared to Uma’s girthy nori cones, they are. The unwieldy snacks at Uma can hardly contain their fillings and occasionally suffer from an overabundance of rice. Served on a sheet of paper, the presentation is incredibly low-key and underwhelming for a chef whose attention to detail makes for an otherwise compelling product. I’m not asking for bamboo boards here, but even a cardboard french fry basket would suffice.

Each chef has put together menus with varying strengths and weaknesses. Boom Sushi takes more of a gamble on its customer base, serving grilled sardines, seared scallops, and fried soft-shell crabs. Uma’s concise menu covers salmon, tuna, crab, tofu, seaweed salad, and a seasonal roll — a whimsical take on fish ‘n’ chips made with fluke, tartar sauce, celery, and potato chips that debuted on opening night. Jaeckle recently intimated that uni might be a possibility in the future.

Even with seasonal specials, Boom offers double the number of rolls as Uma, though Jaeckle’s instituted a choose-your-own-adventure option for control freaks and diners who’ve wished they could create their own signature roll, like an edible spirit animal.

Raw-fish aficionados should feel right at home with Uma’s DIY temaki option, where customers choose a rice, protein, and accompanying vegetables like seasonal pickles. Sauces include lime-spiked avocado, creamy miso, and tobanjan spicy mayonnaise (tobanjan is a spicy fermented bean paste), firmly planting this shop in fusion territory, though it’s a bit more blunt here than the cuisine-blending that takes place at All’onda. While I enjoyed swapping the tartar sauce with spicy mayo in a DIY fish ‘n’ chips roll, the lack of any fresh herbs — chiefly, shiso leaf — feels like an oversight for a chef of Jaeckle’s caliber. Seasonal pickles are but a small consolation to accent the protein of your choice.

At their best, both Uma Temakeria and Boom Sushi offer interesting flavor combinations built around responsibly sourced seafood. On my visits, the rice at both shops was cooked nicely and well vinegared, but the downfall of fast-casual temaki may just be soggy seaweed. The joy of eating temaki lies in the crispness of its nori casing juxtaposed against its fillings, and that joy withers away in seconds, the temperamental plant matter turning floppy and weak by the time your rolls make their way to you. Rice ball manufacturers have found a way around this, wrapping the nori and folding it around its rice. For 2015 to be the hand roll’s breakout year, that nori conundrum needs to be fixed. Yet even with their faults, these things beat the pants off of rice burgers.

Check the next page for more temaki photos.
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