About a year ago, a colleague messaged me asking for a restaurant recommendation. It had to be sushi, which couldn’t be easier. In Manhattan: ibid. And somewhere fun would be preferred. Oh no.
Just as most places can feel romantic under the right circumstances, almost anywhere can end up fun when the stars align. But identifying a sushi restaurant in Manhattan with explicit baseline fun absent any X factors—a place approximating the promise of a Rainforest Cafe or Benihana or pseudo speakeasy—was a rattling challenge. I made a few good-faith suggestions, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the paucity of obvious options. Several months later, Kaki opened on the Lower East Side, granting me those wishes three.
The omakase spot debuted in the former Tiny’s Giant Sandwich Shop on Rivington Street in August. The narrow, beige-y space seats about a dozen, mostly at the counter, with a few tables by the big sidewalk-facing windows. Unlike some other unmentionable sushi newcomers that seem designed more to distract with their technicolor sensory overload than delight with their culinary contributions, Kaki’s understated decor betrays the crackling energy that builds as the house fills up, staggered seatings orchestrated in 75-minute increments throughout the evening.
Kaki isn’t without its X factors, either. Everybody seems excited to be there, even aside from the several guests celebrating birthdays on a recent visit—at least four parties acknowledged with a snippet each of the 50 Cent classic. The below-market price tag, $75 for fifteen items, and BYOB policy likely account for some of the buzz. Likewise the unpretentious hospitality; nobody here’s going to recite a line about how they do things a little differently or explain in placid tones that, being an omakase, all the plates to follow are selected by the chef. And social media devotees might have already caught a glimpse of the fire course, an element which, since the dawn of time, has attracted and amused.
The fire course lands as swift as a sleight of hand, sans any pageantry hinting at what’s to come. It’s only a little peculiar at a glance, a paper cone pointed toward the ceiling, obscuring what turns out to be a golf ball-sized sphere of flaky pastry with finely sliced tuna, salmon and yellowtail inside. Then, as you’re sipping a pleasant mushroom broth with noodles or more than a few splashes of complimentary sake, the staff sets them all alight in a pulse-quickening woosh that washes the room in a hush fractured by oohs, aahs and nervous laughter. The effect transcends any flaming cocktail or jubilee; this is a leaping blaze, a flash and a half that produces enough adrenaline to power the rest of the dinner.
The sizzling micro-show packages the dish rather than informs it; neither the lightly crisp shell nor its tasty interior need the heat or flame at this stage, but it’s still a very nice two bites after all the razzle-dazzle. Any less successful and the whole bit would burn out into gimmick, but Kaki pulls it off with aplomb.
The fantastic fish selections that follow that undeniable introductory draw merit reservations on their own, even without the preceding glow. Availability will vary, but a lovely bit of buttery, rosemary-smoked king salmon with a dusting of chives might be next to arrive. Two rounds of nigiri, five to each set, could include a near-sweet scallop with truffle and wasabi, that textbook amberjack swimming across similar menus all over town, satisfying tastes of Spanish mackerel and fatty tuna and a smattering of custardy uni here and there. Even packed into this relatively brief window, it’s a gratifying lineup presented with enough revelry to last all night.
The Vibe: Unpretentiously hospitable in a small, casual, beige-y space.
The Food: A $75, 15-item omakase that might include wonderful king salmon, Spanish mackerel and fatty tuna, plus a starter that’s literally fire.
The Drinks: BYOB with some splashes of complimentary saki.
Kaki is located at 129 Rivington Street. It is open Tuesday-Thursday from 5pm to 10pm, Friday-Saturday from 5pm-11pm and Sunday, 5pm-11pm.