Note: In mid-2016, Sushi Zen abruptly closed. It was one of NYC's oldest authentic sushiya and will be missed.
- Cost: $100-$150, before drinks, tax, and tip
- Size: 9 seats at counter, plus dining room
- Style: Otsumami/kaiseki + sushi
- Reserved: 2 weeks in advance
If you were to search the most common rankings of "best sushi" in New York or America (or even message boards like Chow), it is unlikely that Sushi Zen will be among the more prominent results. I wonder if this is simply due to the fact that the restaurant is so much older than many of the other New York sushiya that tend to get all of the press (it opened in 1983). There are a handful of sushiya to which the New York Times has awarded two, three, and four stars. Sushi Zen has none.
This is puzzling, as Sushi Zen not only serves an omakase on par with the "more famous" New York sushiya but also offers a number of specialty items that are nearly impossible to find elsewhere in the city. My otsumami included house-made mentaiko and karasumi, buri that had been cured in sake lees for 6 months, and green papaya that had been pickled in miso for more than a year. The taisho, Toshio Suzuki, is also a licensed fugu specialist, and serves a seasonal set that includes fugu sashimi, fugu karaage and nikogori (fugu skin set in a gelatin of its own dashi). Fugu shirako, the Japanese equivalent of white truffles (both from a rarity and cost perspective), is also available when in season with advance notice.
The nigiri have large and slightly "thick" neta, with shari that is very firm, barely seasoned, and almost hard. I also noticed that in many nigiri there were a lot of broken rice grains, suggesting the shari was old or improperly prepared. Despite this, the sushi is overall quite good. I did not find the quality of some of the neta to be quite as high as other top sushiya in New York, though some items (such as the anago, namadako, and kohada) were excellent.
It is important to mention that it makes a big difference to request a seat in front of Suzuki-san for omakase. The other itamae are often preoccupied with orders for tables, and serve different items to diners. Suzuki-san is a legend (I would pit his knife skills against any other sushi chef in New York) and has been the taisho and owner since the restaurant's inception. He has a wealth of knowledge about Japanese cuisine and its history, which makes any meal with him a truly educational experience.
My biggest issue with my meals at Sushi Zen is that the pacing is very fast, and the chefs typically do not wait for diners to eat one item before serving another. In my experience, it is generally advised to eat nigiri within a minute or so of being served (and some chefs will urge diners to consume nigiri immediately) so as not to upset the delicate temperature balance and composition of the neta and shari. At Sushi Zen, this is almost impossible due to the pacing - on my last visit I was almost gobbling nigiri to keep up, which is not really enjoyable.
Regardless of the above, Sushi Zen deserves a spot in the pantheon of New York's best sushiya and retains a loyal following of regulars despite its lack of formal press. It is definitely a spot worthy of a visit for anybody seeking an authentic and high-quality omakase meal.
108 W. 44th St., New York