Nakaji Restaurant Review: Sushi Hideaway in Manhattan’s Chinatown

Try to get a reservation at one of Manhattan’s luxury sushi bars and you’d never guess that the restaurant business is struggling. As I write this, you need to wait a week to experience one of Shion Uino’s $420 omakase meals at 69 Leonard Street. Masa, where lunch and dinner are now $800 a person, is almost fully booked for the next two weeks. At Sushi Noz, spots at both the counter of buffed hinoki wood, where dinner is $400, and the secondary bar made of ash, where it costs $225, are all but sold out for the next month.

How is this happening? Like cheaper restaurants, elite sushi bars are enjoying a rebound effect as customers who stayed home last year make up for lost time. I also think New Yorkers have caught on that something interesting is happening at the high end of the sushi trade, as chefs push their craft into more and more rarefied territory. And while other tasting menus may stay the same for months at a time, making repeat visits pointless, the lineup at a serious omakase sanctuary changes all the time as fish swim in and out of season.

That ebb and flow is a big part of the appeal of Nakaji, which opened in March 2020, a few weeks before the city went into lockdown. Not only has it survived that act of poor timing, but it has already raised its prices, which started at $165. An omakase meal prepared by Kunihide Nakajima, the chef and owner, is now $225. At the moment, a scattering of reservations is still available over the next two weeks.

If you know anything about Nakaji, you have probably heard that it is behind a locked door next to a small, easily overlooked sign in a Chinatown alley. More accurately, it is in the covered passage that runs from Elizabeth Street to the Bowery known by fans of Hainanese chicken as the home of West New Malaysia.

The entrance hints at the near-fetishistic lengths Nakaji takes to act like a small, discreetly cloistered sushi-ya in Tokyo. The windows are long horizontal ones set so high that you can’t peer in unless you happen to be the basketball player Tacko Fall.

To get to the sushi counter, you have to pass through a small bar, which is where you will wait if you are early for your reservation. This is not a bad fate. Nor is it a terrible idea to visit the bar on a night when you’re having the full omakase. The short menu of refined bar snacks includes small platters of sashimi and sushi and an $80 tasting of sea urchin. (Mr. Nakajima is proud of the license that allows him to place online bids in the Tokyo market where uni is auctioned.) Cocktails are suave, Japanese in spirit and not too fussy, although the best may be the simplest of all, a whiskey highball dispensed by a sleek device behind the bar that blends Suntory Toki with supercharged soda water in a precise ratio of one to three.

If you are moving on to a full dinner, at some point a blond-wood door will slide open and you’ll be escorted to one of the 10 leather seats at the sushi counter. Behind the counter is a hand-lettered wall menu from the sushi-ya in Tokyo owned by Mr. Nakajima’s grandfather and a banner from the one owned by his father. He trained in Tokyo himself before coming to New York as a young man and earning a following among sushi fiends at Sushiden and Jado Sushi. Mr. Nakajima himself will eventually make his entrance, clip-clopping, a pair of wooden geta on his feet. Ever since the restaurant reopened in February, he has also worn cloth masks designed by a friend in prints that represent the changing seasons.

This, of course, is also the theme of his menus. In three meals at Nakaji since May, I’ve eaten only a few species more than once, and even then there have been significant differences.

In May, when skipjack tuna are swimming north, lean and hungry, toward their summer feeding grounds, Mr. Nakajima sliced some of the dense, dark-red flesh sashimi-style and served it over chipped ice with a firm slice of Tokyo Bay octopus and a crisp tendril of fiddlehead fern.

By July, he had moved on to the daggertooth pike conger, a sharp-fanged eel that grows fat as the mud where it squirms becomes warmer. Over its rich, rumpled white flesh, simmered to tenderness and then chilled, was spooned a salty, sweet, caramel-colored miso sauce.

August brought icefish, long, slender, milky white. You might think they were udon noodles if you didn’t see the two dark, staring eyes. They are served over ice with a wedge of sudachi, the Japanese lime, and a little dish of ponzu, both of which help ward off the bitterness that creeps into the fish at this time of year.

And these are just the appetizers.

After a few such arrangements, Mr. Nakajima proceeds to the nigiri portion of the menu. An exponent of the purist Edomae school, he doesn’t use a smoker or wave a flame-spewing torch over his seafood. As sushi purveyors did before the age of refrigeration, he marinates some fish in soy and presses others beneath sheets of kelp. His nigiri is adorned with nothing more than a flicker of wasabi and a quick wash of tare.

There might be several scallops from Hokkaido Bay, each no bigger than your fingertip, held together by a strap of nori. Or kuromutsu, the Japanese bluefish, with its rich meat and purplish tint. Or sagoshi, as Spanish mackerel is called when it’s young and its flesh still has a mild flavor and a pale blush.

One style of sushi, prevalent in Los Angeles and represented in New York by Sushi Zo, is marked by long, draping ribbons of meltingly soft fish. This is pretty much the opposite of Mr. Nakajima’s approach. He often carves fish into thick, stubby tiles. Certain slices are quite tender, but in general softness is not his goal. As you make your way through the nigiri segment of the meal, you eat some pieces that could be described as crisp, others that you might say are almost crunchy, a few that start out quite taut before relaxing into a warm richness, and some that remain firm and chewy almost to the end.

Accentuating this effect, Mr. Nakajima often serves fish colder than many other chefs would. Some sushi connoisseurs will see this as a flaw. I don’t, but I will admit that a few pieces at Nakaji almost made my teeth rattle. And the chill can exacerbate a slight chalkiness that sometimes creeps into the rice.

Sea urchin may be the only constant in Mr. Nakajima’s menus, and even this changes. One night, he may have briny, assertive bafun uni from Rishiri Island in far northern Japan; another night he will be serving sweet and delicate murasaki uni from Miyagi prefecture, closer to Tokyo.

His parting shot is usually anago, sea eel — he is an expert with eel, which he makes according to his grandfather’s formula — followed by a very simple dessert, like cold watermelon slices with sea salt and a squirt of yuzu or a scoop of ice cream made with the molasses-like black sugar of Okinawa. At this point, should you have any money left to your name, you can return to the bar in the next room and amuse yourself with what must be the most exhaustive collection of Japanese whiskeys in the city, the rarest of which you can drink for $300 an ounce.

What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.