In New York, good things come to those who wait: Cronuts, Hamilton tickets, a low-priced luxury condo through the affordable-housing lottery. Now to that list we may add Sugarfish, from the legendary L.A.-based Nozawa sushi family. The proprietors of the eleven-location Sugarfish chain as well as two hand-roll bars and the reservation-only Nozawa Bar — which offers a more formal dining experience to those willing to wait many months for a table — have at long last set their sights on New York.
Kazunori Nozawa, patriarch and master chef of the Sugarfish franchise, immigrated to Los Angeles from Tokyo in 1978. Back home, he and his mother had run a successful sushi restaurant called Miyako, in the affluent Setagaya ward; it was a tiny space, only five hundred square feet, that was packed six days a week. Eager for adventure, chef Nozawa applied through the Japanese Culinary Association for the opportunity to travel abroad. His request granted, he landed in Los Angeles that summer.
Nozawa worked at a number of successful sushi restaurants in L.A., developing a loyal customer base. But he tired of serving Americanized spicy tuna and California rolls to so-called sushi fans who didn’t know any better, and craved an arrangement that would allow him to showcase his classical training. “He realized that his calling was to educate Americans about the principles of omakase and traditional sushi,” explained Clement Mok, head of brand marketing and communications for Sugarfish, who serves as a translator for the chef.
In 1987, at the age of 42, Nozawa opened his eponymous sushi restaurant in Studio City, California. (An intimate venue in a nondescript strip mall, it boasted a sign on the wall that read, “Today’s Special: Trust Me.”) “It was one of the proudest and most nerve-racking moments of his life,” Mok said. The place developed a Soup Nazi–like reputation among L.A. foodies, becoming known as the sushi spot where you eat what you’re given, immediately and without question. Los Angeles food maven Jonathan Gold described it as “a graduate school of fish.” The restaurant did a brisk business up until its closing day in 2012, when chef Nozawa chose to formally retire from behind the bar.
Easing the transition to a Nozawa-less L.A. dining scene, the first Sugarfish location opened in 2008, a partnership between Nozawa, the investor Jerry Greenberg, and Nozawa’s son Tom, a classically trained French chef who spent years working at L.A.’s famous L’Orangerie before joining forces with his father. Now, nearly ten years after Sugarfish opened its doors, and three decades since the Nozawa clan set the standard for omakase across L.A. County, New York has a location of its own.
Opening night was a hit, with an estimated two-hour wait for a two-top even by the early-bird hour of 5:40 p.m. (the wait ended up being three hours and fifteen minutes). Many who stuck it out were patrons of Nozawa’s (and Sugarfish’s) Los Angeles locations, L.A. transplants and bicoastal foodies. At the waiting area upstairs, which features wide benches and small tables and zero Wi-Fi, Sida Wei and her boyfriend drank wine and sake ordered from the host stand downstairs, hoping a prized table might open sooner than expected. “I can remember how it melted in my mouth,” said Wei of her first dining experience at Sugarfish in L.A., four years prior. “If I have sushi today, I’m going to want it to be Sugarfish.” Thirty minutes later, hungry and impatient, she and her date gave up and left. By 8:20, the restaurant was turning people away.
Most patrons order one of the three set omakase menus — Trust Me, Trust Me Lite, and the Nozawa — which, at $37, $29, and $51, including tax and tip, are a New York bargain (dinner at Masa, in the Time Warner Center, costs ten times as much). The meals begin with garnet-red tuna sashimi garnished with scallions and swimming in a shallow pool of ponzu sauce. From there, in swift succession, the full Nozawa omakase (the most complete of the tasting menus) will usher out uniform plates of albacore, salmon, yellowtail, halibut, snapper, a toro and a blue-crab hand roll, and the daily special — recently, a single, decadent scallop. Some of the offerings come pre-sauced at the chef’s discretion, and you will be warned not to taint anything with a plebeian impulse for soy or wasabi: “No soy for you!” Because the food is served as it’s ready and must be eaten in kind, you and your dining companions might face a several-second stutter-step in the synchronicity of your dinner service. Who cares?
Diners on opening night were rewarded with not just the gratification of a Sugarfish meal (which, like McDonald’s, is consistent in quality no matter where in the world you consume it) but also black baseball caps embroidered with the Sugarfish logo and signed beneath the brim by Nozawa himself. All across the restaurant, diners could be heard whispering “There he is” as the chef walked back and forth, surveying the scene, powwowing with employees, proud.
33 East 20th Street
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 4, 2017