Hard to believe there was ever a time when mainstream America recoiled at the thought of ingesting raw fish. Today, while even heartland supermarket delis stock salmon rolls, informed diners belly up to Japanese bars for omakase—not just in the best sushi restaurants in L.A. and best sushi restaurants in New York, but all across the country—putting themselves in their chef’s hands to experience an interactive, often open-ended feast. Where once date night might have meant getting cozy over a pepperoni pie (“It’s the best pizza in America,” he said as he wiped some cheese from his chin), today it might mean settling in for a night of non-stop, Edomae-style nigiri (emphasizing local species and warm vinegared rice) fueled by junmai daiginjo. If you’re especially lucky, it will be at one of these extraordinary shrines to the art of Japanese seafood. Follow Time Out USA on Facebook; sign up for the Time Out USA newsletter
Best sushi restaurants in America
Tyson Cole swears he didn’t set out to transform the Austin dining scene when he opened Uchi in a 1920s bungalow 12 years ago; he simply wanted the “creative freedom to get other people as addicted to Japanese food as I was.” But he did both, becoming the first American itamae to receive a James Beard Award for Best Chef and opening a larger but no less warmly chic spinoff, Uchiko, along the way. Despite the expansion, there’s no room here for pretension: for all his technical mastery and cutting-edge proclivities, Cole’s menus change often and range widely enough to appeal to novices as well as connoisseurs, who can compare, say, three different kinds of sea urchin while their warier companions sample tempura-fried Brie alongside “clean, crisp, light” sakes and white wines.Photograph: Courtesy Uchi/Erica Wilkins
Last we saw Daisuke Nakazawa, he was toiling over egg custard as the modest apprentice in the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, humbled by the rigors of an 11-year stint under the world’s most distinguished sushi chef, Jiro Ono. The pupil has emerged as the teacher at this sleek West Village sushi bar. Whereas his master was stoic, Nakazawa is a jokester who places a live squirming shrimp on your plate just for a laugh. But his pranks don’t undercut the seriousness of his nigiri, like pike mackerel, featuring a gentle brininess that gives way to unctuous maritime fat as you chew, and wild yellowtail from Hokkaido, with fatty tails that tantalizingly overhang rice so tenderly packed, it would fall to pieces if you looked at it funny. At times, delicately flavored creatures like scallops or fluke are outstripped by pungent wasabi or yuzu. But the meal at Sushi Nakazawa is like a wave, its gentle lulls rendering the crests all the more thrilling.
Though Boston was hardly devoid of Japanese restaurants in 2007, it had never seen anything quite like the arrival of this rustic-industrial Leather District hideaway. From needlefish sashimi served with the deep-fried head and backbone to tomalley aioli-topped lobster-caviar nigiri, every last luxury presented by chef Tim Cushman was as exquisite as it was exotic (as were the beverage pairings his wife Nancy, as the city’s first sake sommelier, oversaw). And so they remain. At 17-20 courses, omakase at O Ya fetches a small fortune, but as you marvel your way through striped horse mackerel in leche de tigre or the famous foie gras with chocolate-balsamic kabayaki and raisin-cocoa pulp, the tab will shrink in comparison to the blissful memories being made.
Nodoguro is open Thursday through Sunday for dinner only, excepting the occasional Wednesday. There’s just one seating per evening along the chef’s counter, with room for 14 patrons at most. The “regular” yet ever-changing farm-to-fork Japanese menu—built around such whimsical themes as Twin Peaks (sample course for David Lynch devotees: “Cod in the Dashi Percolator”)—runs 9 to 11 courses; on even-more-freewheeling sushi nights, the number rises to nearly 20. Just doing the math gives you a sense of how truly special itamae Ryan Roadhouse’s tiny yet mighty pop-up-turned-permanent sensation is. But only a taste of his sesame-pressed trout sashimi or uni-salmon roe hand rolls, paired with premium sake or cool local boutique wines, can really drive the point home.Photograph: Courtesy Nodoguro/Ilana Hamilton
At this 20-seat sushi counter from rock-star chefs Jimmy Lau and Nick Kim—formerly of Neta—a cool $135 prompts an omakase (chef's selection) of exceptionally made edomaezushi served in its purest form, each lightly lacquered with soy and nestled atop a slip of warm, loosely packed rice. Luscious, marbled toro, a usually late-in-the-game cut affectionately known as the kobe beef of the sea, boldly arrives first, even before sweet Spanish mackerel with barely-there shreds of young ginger or sea bream dabbed with plummy ume shiso. The cocksure shuffling, though initially jarring, is a kick hiccup to your usual omakase beat, a winking reminder that, even with the price hike, Shuko’s Lau and Kim haven’t completely shed their subtle sushi-dogma subversions.
Sasabune, Honolulu, HI
Seiji Kumagawa don’t give a damn about his uncompromising reputation—as a host. As a chef, he gives every damn. Which is why, amid increasingly tough competition, this simply, traditionally decorated Makiki outpost of an L.A. original remains a must-go among must-gos for the gung-ho. If you sit at the bar at Sasabune—and you should—it’s omakase-only, a 12- to 13-course affair about which, barring allergies, you have zero say. But from the cool-warm nigiri (including revelatory negitoro) to the painstaking treatment of local abalone and opah to the rare treat that is Koshu (Japan’s indigenous white wine), you’ll be speechless and powerless to resist your chef’s directives anyway.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Ryan Ozawa
You can’t choose your family—but a sushi chef could do a lot worse than relatives who’ve been in the soy sauce-bottling and sake-brewing business for 200 years. Kevin Cory makes the most of what’s already in his blood with not only exceptional skill but imagination and verve: Seating no more than eight patrons at a time in his ultra-intimate dining room, he offers an omakase experience that wows and charms in equal measure, from bento boxes like edible jewelry displays to rainbows of remarkable nigiri (ever had blackbelly rosefish?) to the cult-fave, soy-sauce ice cream. No wonder Naoe earned a five-star rating from the Forbes Travel Guide in 2013—one of only 30 restaurants in the world to do so.
Flashy. Splashy. Cold-hard cashy. As a joint project with mega-restaurateur Stephen Starr, Iron Chef star Masaharu Morimoto’s flagship is everything you’d imagine it to be. High ceilings, undulating lines and color-changing neon give the two-story space a disco vibe; snazzy cocktails and specialties like yosedofu—tofu made before your eyes—or the infamous fugu (blowfish), prepared three ways in season, only heighten the spectacle. But after a decade and a half, the substance here remains equal to the style, whether you’re savoring such rarities as keiji salmon and firefly squid à la carte or splurging on the gorgeously crafted seven-course chef’s tasting.
L.A. is awash with sushi bars, but Urasawa is at the top of the heap. Flown in daily, the fish is prepared by chef Hiroyuki Urasawa (who trained under Masa Tamayaka from NYC’s Masa) and one assistant. Meals stretch to 20-plus artfully prepared courses, ranging from snapper to toro to mackeral sashimi. Booking is imperative (there are no walk-ins), and an early-evening slot is best: if you arrive at 8pm, each course will arrive as soon as you've finished the previous bite. You’ll be dropping an insane amount of money at Urasawa (it has been named, time and time again, one of America’s most expensive restaurants), but for a sushi fanatic, it is well worth the money.
Sushi Tadokoro, San Diego, CA
A stripped-down strip-mall storefront sets the stage for a low-key yet high-toned parade of daily specials in the Edomae style: here’s your chance to try Japanese sardines and barracuda, the fatty halibut fin muscle called engawa, and clams galore, including blood cockles. Start with fried smelt and sake in charmingly mismatched cups; finish with a bowl of zenzai (mochi dumplings in sweet adzuki-bean soup); and above all bask in the serene glow of Sushi Tadokoro’s seafood extraordinaire, presented with neither pomp nor circumstance.
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Kirk K.