Total Bill: $630 for three people
How often do you get top-notch sushi with some Sam Smith? Masa alums Nick and Jimmy offer an almost perfect blend of meticulously crafted tradition with a modernized touch to the kaiseki at Shuko, their latest venture right off Union Square.
So with Sam Smith, Drake and other soothing hip-hop classics playing overhead in this polished, delicately lit cave, you can choose either the 15-course kaiseki at $175 or sushi omakase for $135. I’d recommend the former. But as a sea urchin fan, I’d note that you would have to forgo the uni flight offered in the omakase, though you do get a single piece as part of the kaiseki. All member of your party will have to go the same route.
One awkward issue with Shuko, however, is its seating situation. There are three out-of-place tables adjacent to the door, with the rest of the seating all stools around the sushi bar, where you get to converse with the chefs, maybe even Nick or Jimmy themselves. Be sure to request a seat at the bar when you reserve to enhance the experience.
That aside, the food had a lot to live up to. I’ve never seen such glowing reviews across top New York critics. And indeed, mom, Kim and I were mostly pleased with the kaiseki.
The meal comes in three stanzas. First, a series of cooked dishes, starting off with a homemade grilled mochi cut into squares and topped with a pasty miso and pistachios. Its subtle, earthy flavor is quite a way to start the journey.
That’s followed up with a sharp turn with a light, springy crab salad enveloped in skillfully sliced daikon and shreds of persimmon. There’s a delightful hint of sour that really shifts the gear for what’s to come.
Next came two of my personal favorites. The trout sashimi with roe comes swimming in a light ponzu sauce. I would drink that stock if it wouldn’t make me look so weird, but it goes so nicely with the luscious trout flesh. You’re given to already portioned bites with the trout wrapped around fresh, crunchy nagaimo.
It came down between that and the buttery toro topped with caviar with a side of toasted milk bread. That toro comes in its rawest form, emitting pure toro flavor. I couldn’t bear to eat it with the milk bread, so enjoyed each bite of fish on its own — though the milk bread by itself wasn’t bad either.
The three other phase-one dishes are artfully prepared as well, but didn’t tug at me sushi-loving heartstrings quite as much. The vegetable tempura isn’t any ordinary batter-fried food. The various julienne-cut vegetables were first puzzle pieced together to form a waffle-like configuration, fried together into one piece. The grilled lobster came with bits of cauliflower and smoky bacon blanketed in soft truffle shavings. Then, the squab — really skillfully prepared — with a beautiful pink center and powerful jus.
Now, for one major lowlight of the meal that, to me, singlehandedly prevents it from topping the ranks of New York City resaurants: the wagyu. It’s not part of the kaiseki. It’s a supplement that you can add for a whopping $50. I’d willingly pay up for premium beef, but there was something very mediocre, even disappointing, about Shuko’s wagyu. The cuts weren’t consistent in their taste and texture. The outer edges were overcooked and chewy.
A clear mushroom broth is served next as a palette cleanser as you move into phase two — a phase filled with sushi and sashimi, and what makes Shuko’s $175 pre-set menu such a bang for the buck versus what you’ll find at other high-end Japanese restaurants.
And it starts strong. Maybe even too strong because we were all still talking about that buttery slice of fatty tuna ten pieces later. But the series in its entirety stands out from the island of omakases because it gracefully combines tradition and innovation. It encompasses the simplicity and quality of Yasuda and Nakazawa with the creativity of Gari.
The rice comes already soy-ed, so there’s really no need for any extra dipping. That leaves you with the privileged task of savoring each bite. There were four plates, each with four different pieces, and they get increasingly elaborate. Some standout were the uni, of course, a silky sweet scallop, the spicy tuna roll and tartar-like mushroom on top of a lightly crisped cube of rice.
It’s around here that I noticed how clever their portioning was. There was no dish that left me wanting more or less, and it wasn’t until the end of part two until I realized I was pleasantly full. But of course there was that much-talked-about apple pie still to come.
To my surprise, however, a humble citrus granite stole the part-three show. Somehow both icy and smooth, it a refreshing citrus explosion with just the right amount of lime dusting. I would have happily ended it there, but there was the looming anticipation of the apple pie that has gotten rave reviews from both critics and everyday eaters alike.
The piece of pie popped because it’s a tremendous slice, especially when you’ve spent the entire meal gazing into delicate portions plate after plate. Luckily the pie is lovely, not gratuitously sweet, and just the right amount of gooey. Paired with a scoop of bay leaf ice cream, the meal ends as strong as it started.