Under the blaze of a blowtorch, two strips of tuna fat crackle and sputter like a New Year’s Eve sparkler, seductively dripping their rendered gold onto a mound of toro tartare and rice. As the chef rushes to crown the dish with these newly forged “tuna chicharróns,” one falls from the counter to the floor; the second is halved, and that’s all you get.
One dropped tuna crackling is trivial in the scope of a multihour omakase, but it’s the result of a frenzied pace that half thrills, half unsettles. New York Sushi Ko , which opened in June, is in the young-gun style of Neta over in the West Village, replacing reverent silence with a more rock & roll vibe. Chef John Daley, who honed his sushi skills at New York heavyweights Masa and 15 East and Tokyo’s famed Sukeroku, not only runs the show, he is the show, darting around his 10-seat Lower East Side shoebox like a cook whose dinner-party guests arrived 20 minutes early.
No two sets of diners get the same sequence of courses, but all meals begin with small, composed plates and conclude with a run of edomae-style nigiri adorned with little more than a nub of wasabi and a light brush of soy sauce. Daley’s rice is firm, sweet and loosely packed, a bed worthy of the mackerel, tuna or goldeneye snapper that was swimming off the coast of Japan not too long ago.
His fevered clip, however, doesn’t translate to timely eating, but you’d wait all day for torched fatty tuna, which appears in many guises. That fat-drizzled tartare bombshell is nearly shown up by the modest girl next door—natural-beauty toro slabs get a quiet searing in a cast-iron dish. Accompaniments of rice, wasabi, grated daikon and ginger stand at attention around the edge of your ceramic plate, the first to soak up the lush fat, the rest to cut it with heat. Subtler still is the torched collar that ends a flight of tuna nigiri (leanest to fattiest). Kissed with fire and a squeeze of lemon, it’s a sushi master’s take on grilled fish, so delightfully simple, it might make you consider trading in your Weber for a blowtorch.
Your tuna education turns out to be child’s play compared to the Ph.D. in uni you’ll have earned by the end of the night. Daley stacks little wooden uni boxes in his kitchen as if they were clementine crates at Fairway, the precious cargo hailing from California, Chile and Japan. You may find that the Santa Barbara sea urchin’s firm exterior makes its core seem especially creamy by contrast, draped across gently torched scallops with briny pops of salmon roe in a potent yuzu foam. The uni oozes out to mingle with the froth, taming its powerful citric punch with richness, so that the gentle flavors of the sea aren’t overwhelmed. Japanese lobes, on the other hand, are buttery outside and in, almost obscenely so—they ease into a cold dashi gelée subtly sweetened by baby shrimp and roused by an invigorating whop of smoked sea salt.
For all of Daley’s virtuosity and dedication (RICE and FISH on his knuckles spell out the obsession in ink), the long waits between courses aren’t always rewarded on the plate. A subtle dish of kampachi—tartare and sashimi—is overmatched by bitter (and watery) cucumber gelée, while the enoki, stewed gourd and jackfish studding an undersalted chawanmushi are all too yielding to highlight the supple, quivering custard. And the dinner-rush grind of running a one-man kitchen can result in less savory flare-ups, like on a recent night when the chef took to barking at his staff. But these hiccups don’t overshadow the talent at work—waves of gorgeous miniature plates and pristine fish in the most intimate of spaces.
At the end of a meal in which all the shots have been called by the chef, you do have one important decision to make; settle up and leave, or ante up for one more hand. Anything that you ate or ogled during the night can be yours if you say the word; dinner here ends on your own terms, and a quiet bite of nigiri will do just fine. But if you want to go out with a bang, there’s only one way: Bring on the torch.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Meal highlights: Dashi gelée with uni, scallops with uni and salmon roe, toro tartare, toro steak, tuna collar nigiri, goldeneye snapper nigiri
Price per person: Three composed courses plus sushi $75, five $125, seven $175 and “unlimited” $200. Factor in a little more if you’re drinking sake, wine or beer.
Vibe: Whatever the highs (stunning sushi) and lows (long waits) of John Daley’s one-man band, you experience it with an intimate group of passionate eaters.
Cocktail chatter: Not a lot of big-box restaurant-supply shopping involved here: Daley makes his own soy sauce and ponzu, while all of the dishware is kiln-fired in Williamsburg by ceramicist Helen Levi.
Soundcheck: Eleven diners, a boisterous chef and some reggae music can drum up a lot of noise in a restaurant the size of a Winnebago, but a hush falls over the room when Daley has a dish to announce.
By Daniel S. Meyer