On a recent August night at the postage stamp–size sushi bar Mayanoki, erstwhile Annisa chef de cuisine Mary Attea found herself momentarily at a loss for words. “Is that…” she blurted, trailing off as she eyed a chrome tray of fish fillets arranged like a sadistic mermaid’s backgammon board.
“Catfish?” chef Mike Han offered. “Yeah.” A smirk washed over him, as though he’d heard the question countless times before. Attea, seated at the eight-seat walnut counter — across from Han and next to her former boss (and one of the country’s great chefs) Anita Lo — beamed back: “I was going to say!” She sounded genuinely floored. After all, raw catfish is a rare sight outside of kitchen prep.
It no doubt takes a lot to surprise a duo like Attea and Lo, whose piqued interest was shortly rewarded. The catfish, a saltwater variety from Virginia, proves an underdog victor in the overfished world of contemporary sushi. Mildly sweet and firm, the secret seems to be a brush of Han’s house soy sauce, which he brews with fish bones, resulting in an earthy, saline depth and a palate-coating richness. Eyes closed (often a side effect of eating good sushi), you’d be forgiven for mistaking the humble bottom-feeder for one of the cultish seasonal sea basses that tonier sushi-yas around the city import from Japan.
There have always been such surprises, questions, and explanations, ever since Mayanoki’s inception half a decade ago as a roving pop-up proselytizing for sustainable sushi — showcasing fish from North American waters to minimize environmental impact. Founders Josh Arak and David Torchiano, two sushi obsessives, started it as a residential supper club before moving the show to a defunct Williamsburg winery a few years ago. Over its history the omakase has ping-ponged in price and meal-length, from $65 for twelve courses to $105 for eight (with a wine pairing) to $125 for fifteen. Chefs have come and gone, including veterans from Tribeca’s Zutto and from Uchi in Dallas. Han, who made a name for himself in Chicago as the head sushi chef at Roka Akor, had been trying to open a sustainable sushi-ya in Detroit. That venture fizzled out, but he and the Mayanoki crew connected over Instagram. “We were searching through sustainable-sushi hashtags,” partner and beverage maven TJ Provenzano confides, laughing. In May, inside a small, sparsely handsome East Village space (exposed brick, pressed-tin ceiling), they finally put down roots.
I never had the pleasure of visiting Mayanoki in its previous permutations, but under Han, it’s a thrill ride of conscientiousness chockablock with genuinely exciting curveballs (blowfish tails from Rhode Island with pickled wasabi stems, for instance). And in a climate where upper-echelon sushi temples will run you between $175 and $595, the $95 you’ll part with here — for fifteen courses of carefully prepared nigiri, hand rolls, and snacks called otsumami — is more than merited. This is sushi with purpose and promise.
Han begins proceedings with a short speech about the oyster’s historical significance in New York City. If your bivalves aren’t dabbed with ponzu and miniature Mexican pickles, they might instead come splashed with the florally sweet crimson juice of elephant heart plums. Then the nigiri roll out as Han methodically works his way through each selection. Florida lionfish, an invasive species, gets a powerful smudge of “umami paste,” an inky condiment made from nori seaweed and black garlic. Because of how small the operation is, Han has to be precise about how much product he orders. “I have to convince them I’m worth the hassle,” he says while tweezering red micro-amaranth leaves, their flavor reminiscent of beets, onto slabs of Long Island ocean trout. Between the pleasantly dense fish and the hint of sweetly earthy root vegetable, it tastes vaguely Eastern European — perhaps a nod to the neighborhood’s roots: herring and borscht. Micro-basil is another unexpected twist, sneaked under striped bass from Cape Cod. If not for the soft grains of vinegared rice, it could be the beginning of an Italian crudo.
Fair warning: Throughout the night, you might wind up as Han’s guinea pig. But leave your trepidation at the door.
“I hope this works,” the chef mutters as he removes each ghostly, opaque ball of jiggling swordfish marrow from its soy sauce bath. Han serves the briny blob as gunkan maki, cradled in a strip of nori. The result is like some oceanic Jell-O shot, in the best way possible — something seemingly dreamt up by a fraternity with only pirates and fishermen as members.
Provenzano’s beverage list finds dry unfiltered cider from upstate New York sharing page space with sweet unfiltered sake from Japan. And should you opt for his $65 pairing, know that you’ll be in for equally unconventional fun, like the Channing Daughters orange wine he pairs with the two pieces that Han chars with his blowtorch: Spanish mackerel and fatty fluke fin, the latter of which is drizzled with buckwheat honey soy. Here’s hoping that Mayanoki itself, with its positive message and even more positive results, will prove sustainable.
Toward the end of one of my meals, Han announced with a nervous laugh, “I’m basically serving this blind.” “This” turned out to be Massachusetts razor clams, part of an accidental order totaling seventeen pounds (he’d wanted seventeen clams total). Fried in greaseless tempura batter and plunked on top of an albacore tartare mixed with shiitake mushrooms, they were, like so much of what’s served here, a wild experiment with an overwhelmingly happy ending.
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