In 2011, Daisuke Nakazawa cried when his mentor, Jiro Ono, told him he had finally succeeded at making egg sushi, a yellow custard that I would not ordinarily associate with sushi, somewhere between a cake and pudding. Relegated to making a dozen egg sushi a day, this acknowledgement of craft is what the student has been waiting for. Nakazawa recalled this moment while sitting in a tunnel of the Ginza train station in Tokyo, filmed for the documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about the three Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro, tucked into a Tokyo subway.
At Sushi Nakazawa in the West Village, the sushi chef behind the counter is nothing like the monk-like man in the documentary, head bowed in servitude to his mentor. Today, he can only be described as jovial, more of a blushing Buddha.
Throughout the 21-course omakase meal, he laughs and jokes in between serving single pieces of incredible sushi: Ivory King Salmon, a sea scallop freshly scooped from its shell, a melt-in-your-mouth piece of fatty tuna. At one point, Nakazawa throws four tiger shrimp onto the counter in front of a respectable Scandinavian couple. The lively shrimp squirm and the woman jumps back in her seat before Nakazawa retrieves them and instructs us to repeat after him: “Sayonara!” Laughing almost satanically, he proceeds to pop each head off in rapid succession before filleting the recently deceased and placing them on a burial mound of rice.
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Nakazawa moves with a care and precision that is staggering. Each piece of fish is served at its prime temperature (I watch as Nakazawa poaches the Amber Shrimp for half a second) and has been prepared without any shortcuts. The octopus, I’m sure, was massaged for hours before hitting the plate. Like his mentor, Nakazawa takes note of each customer’s preferred hand, and plates the sushi accordingly (the ends point at 8 o’clock, or 2 o’clock for south-paws). As Nakazawa places a Goldeneye Snapper at 8 o’clock, I ask him if I can take a photo. He grabs a sushi paddle and poses as he says, “Ping pong?”
Theatrics aside, this is about the food. In reference to one particularly large piece of mackerel, a man at the counter mimes to Nakazawa, who is still learning English, “How?” He points towards his mouth. “Hand or chopstick – you decide. But whole thing – a harmony of the mouth.”
Halfway through the meal, Nakazawa points at a young woman with the angularity of a fashion-week model sitting at the end of the counter. “Are you getting full?,” he laughs. We, his captivated audience, shake our heads no. “Good! But ask for small rice if full!” I don’t think I could ever be full enough to deny this fish bliss. The nine other customers at the bar agree; we all made this reservation a month ago (likely after several failed tries) and came prepared to enjoy our omakase in full.
For the next piece, Nakazawa pulls out a bamboo stand with sea urchin. He carves each piece from the carefully plated set and places them on a bed of rice encircled with a piece of seaweed. “Sea urchin with truffle salt.” The urchin is like nothing I’ve ever seen, glowing with an almost artificial orange, and spilling out over its seaweed encasement. I place the piece in my mouth, and am literally transported. The urchin’s creamy texture washes over my tongue, with a hint of truffle that requires my full concentration. I hear a collective moan from the other diners.
The meal ends with the student’s first accomplishment, egg sushi. Without pomp or decoration, Nakazawa slides the golden egg custard onto our plates and leaves his stage. As he exits, I turn around just in time to look out the front window and watch one of the world’s best sushi masters pull out his bicycle and join the other New Yorkers for his commute home.