New Kid on the Block – Kura’s Omakase Leaves You Feeling Happy

IMG_8528Kura
130 St Mark’s Pl
(between Avenue A & 1st Ave)
New York, NY 10009

Kura is a new Japanese restaurant on St. Mark’s that is NOT owned by the St. Mark’s Japanese restauranteur legend (who owns Soba-YaRobatayaCha-AnCurry-Ya, and Shabu-Tatsu). It’s actually owned by Huey Cheng, a fellow middle school classmate of mine from Beijing. He recently moved to New York and has been working on this venture with Chef Ishizuka (with many more to come).

Kura is an intimate sushi restaurant that doesn’t have a menu. It’s currently hidden under some scaffolding, but even without the scaffolding, the entrance is small enough that one might just walk past it. It also doesn’t have windows. All these things make it sound like a pretentiously expensive restaurant, but it isn’t. At all. Kura is modestly elegant; the smooth, matte, white ash wood decor makes the place feel homey. It’s just dim enough and small enough to feel intimate; yet, the soft warm lighting allows you to see your food clearly and the seating is arranged such that you don’t feel claustrophobic (even without the windows.)

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LAW took me here on Tuesday night and we tried the omakase with both cooked foods and sushi. Chef Ishizuka specializes in Osaka cuisine, which tends to be on the sweeter side. We started with a yellowtail sashimi with a light ponzu type sauce with lots of scallions. The chef includes some kind of fish skin chopped up in the mixture, which adds a little fattiness and, surprisingly, crunchiness. It is slightly sweet with a citrus aftertaste. LAW claims this is the best yellowtail he has ever had in his life.

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I told Huey a few weeks ago that I love miso black cod and so he made sure we were able to try their version of cod during our meal. Pictured above is a soy sauce steeped cod with sake and sugar. It is marinated for much longer than the miso black cod and so has much more flavor. The cod is flakey, smooth, and not fishy at all. I personally prefer the fattier pieces that are not cooked for as long so that they are more tender. This one here is on the tougher side.

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Next up was this egg custard, which was probably one of the best dishes we had that night. Egg custard is a very simple dish to make but very difficult to perfect. Timing, temperature, and subtle ingredients can greatly affect the consistency and flavor of the egg. I particularly like the slight bittery citrus flavor from the yuzu rind that the chef included on our egg. The first half of the egg custard is creamy, mellow, and a little warm. It is just hot enough that it forces you to eat slowly, and just cool enough so that it you don’t burn your tongue. The second half and base of the egg custard is filled with various treasures of the sea. I can’t even remember everything we had… eel, fish, fishcake (but more fish than cake, which was great), sweet marinated mushrooms, etc.
IMG_8534Pictured here is something I’ve never had before. I remember distinctly while the chef was stuffing a squid with rice mixture in front of me, he was giggling the entire time. I couldn’t help but giggle along with him throughout the process. His mood is contagious and contributed a lot to my dining experience.

IMG_8538The squid ended up tasting like nothing I had ever had. At the same time, it wasn’t weird at all either. The squid itself is creamy and chewy. The richness completely overwhelmed my palate until I got through to the rice. The rice mixture contains seaweed, sesame seeds, and chopped up bits of sweet marinated mushroom. In comparison to the squid, the rice is light and fragrant, leaving a very pleasant aftertaste. I love ordering omakase because it is always an experience. Omakase isn’t for eating to fill up. Omakase is for eating to try new things, things you wouldn’t typically order. And this squid is an example of a great omakase dish.

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Here, Chef Ishizuka takes out his pride and joy, the toro. He explained to me that one side was the otoro (fattiest) and the other side the chutoro (medium fattiness). Chef Ishizuka is definitely the main reason I enjoyed my experience so much. He was constantly laughing and talking to all the customers at the bar. He epitomizes the word jolly. Unlike the sushi chefs at Yasuda, Chef Ishizuka shared his personality with diners. I also noticed that he handled the fish very roughly, like how I handle the pork belly in my kitchen. It was a little unsettling at first but also very refreshing to see such a fish expert handle something he knew so well. He often didn’t even need to look to know exactly what cut he needed.

IMG_8530Nom. The sushi rice is slightly sweeter than usual, which Huey explained is probably due to the warmth of the rice. As rice cools, the rice vinegar that they use loses a bit of the sweetness.

IMG_8539The handrolls are made like how you would make your own fajita or peking duck wrap: the chef grabs a piece of seaweed, throws on a chunk of rice, smushes on a few slices of toro, barely rolls it up nonchalantly, and hands it to you. For me, he didn’t even roll it up. He handed me an unrolled handroll and said, “you make it yourself!” I’ve never been to a sushi place where fish and sushi are treated so … bluntly. It was refreshing to see someone who knew so much about the fish remind me that what I am eating is just food. As pretty as Jiro’s documentary made nigiri look, sometimes we put these foods on too high a pedestal. Food is food. Fish is fish. Sushi is sushi.

IMG_8531Yellowtail. Chef Ishizuka tucks in more wasabi under the fish than Yasada’s chefs and brushes on his own sweeter, lighter version of soy sauce.

IMG_8544Uni is super fresh and sweet.

IMG_8517 IMG_8545Torched salmon. Delicious, but I have to admit, this wasn’t the best piece of salmon I’ve had. The slightly torched bits smell amazingly smokey but the smokiness takes over the delicious pure flavor of raw salmon. The salmon itself is also probably not fatty enough either… something about it just isn’t amazing as some other salmon I’ve had.

IMG_8541<edit> I forgot to add this photo earlier. I told Huey about the amazing egg cake nigiri that I saw in Jiro’s documentary, the one where the sushi chef wasn’t allowed to touch the egg until he had been working for Jiro for ten years (crazy, right? By the way, that sushi chef now has his own sushi restaurant in Seattle!). Huey told Chef Ishizuka about how I wanted to try it so the chef ended up preparing this egg nigiri for our reservation. Chef Ishizuka said he had not made it in 20 years. I was touched that he bothered to go out of their way to make something just for me and also super excited that I would get to try it. The egg nigiri looks very simple but the chef explained that the recipe is actually really tedious. He had to grind up shrimp and mountain yam way in advance (I think he said two days?). The cake itself is spongey, light, and almost a little lemony tasting. I didn’t taste the shrimp at all but imagine it added to the umami of the egg. I still don’t quite understand why it’s so difficult to make but Huey said he is pretty sure no other sushi restaurant in Manhattan has it on its menu because it just takes too much effort. People tend to not appreciate it as much either so the effort isn’t even worth it. Nonetheless, I was touched and very glad I got to try it.

IMG_8543Here’s Chef Ishizuka and Huey. You’ll find that Chef Ishizuka often jokes around with Huey, pushes him around behind the bar, and laughs a lot with him. The food, although not perfect (yet), is great. The food, minus drinks, is about $70 per person – probably the cheapest omakase you can find in the city where the chef makes each nigiri for you on the spot in front of you. After dinner, Huey was telling me about how they really like to be experimental. They stick to tradition with some things but also like to mix it up and offer customers something new. I can definitely see myself coming in on a random weeknight for a few nigiris and a hot bowl of beef udon (which many of my friends who have had it say is the best udon they’ve ever had). The environment is cozy, not intimidating at all, and just pleasant. It definitely gave me that feeling I get from my favorite restaurants of being lost in the moment with my food and LAW. The lack of windows makes you forget time. The quietness removes you from the busy streets of New York. And the chef’s quirky humor puts everyone in a good mood.

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