Sushi in New York that won’t break the bank? It’s coming – diners have turned away from US$500 chef’s choice counters and restaurants are closing

This market transformation “is one of the reasons we have decided to move on to the next phase”, she says.

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Yamaguchi says the team may open another elevated Japanese establishment elsewhere in the city.

She believes the company’s next endeavour may feature “a more affordable format to cater to a broader range of guests”.

She is among the operators who sees the audience for high-priced sushi in New York shrinking – or at least considering more affordable options.

Tuna from Sushi Ginza Onodera. The small chain is closing its only New York location on August 19. Photo: Sushi Ginza Onodera

The city is not turning its back on elite sushi and omakase. Earlier this summer, chef Eji Ichimura returned to New York with a US$425 menu.

Later this year, Sushi Sho, whose Hawaii restaurant is one of the best places for cured fish in the country, will open its first New York outpost. But the field will be a little thinner than it was.

When Sushi Ginza Onodera entered the US market in New York seven years ago, the city’s omakase scene was just beginning to blossom.

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Dining enthusiasts were clamouring to get into the West Village spot Nakazawa opened by Jiro Dreams of Sushi alum Daisuke Nakazawa, where the omakase was going for US$150.

Since then, the Big Apple has welcomed no less than 14 sophisticated counters – many built from wood imported from Japan, accented with artisan pottery and equipped with just a handful of seats.

Today, a meal starts at US$300, with the top-tier places running closer to US$500. That is not counting drinks beyond water, or tax and tip.

That is also not taking into account Masa, the leader in expense-account sushi which currently charges US$950, exclusive of drinks and before tax, to sit at the counter, without knowing if chef Masa Takayama will be there to serve you.

It is no surprise, then, that diners are beginning to balk at paying the equivalent of a laptop for a two-hour meal for two.

Sushi Ginza Onodera’s head sushi chef, Takuya Kubo, with hairy crab from Hokkaido. Photo: Instagram/@sushiginzaonoderanyc

Sophia Park, co-owner of Taru, says the potential oversaturation of high-end omakase is “a valid concern”. When the Sushi on Me pop-up finishes at the end of August, she plans to use the former Kotaru space to host meals from rising talent, with pricing that reflects the different concepts.

But she says the goal of these forthcoming engagements will be to offer a great meal and “provide value”.

Joshua Foulquier, co-owner of Sushi Noz on the Upper East Side, where the menu goes for US$495, agrees that the high-end counter scene in New York is getting crowded. He is “starting to see some dilution in the market”, as places shut their doors.

Kamasu nigiri at Sushi Ginza Onodera New York. Photo: Instagram/@sushiginzaonoderanyc

Foulquier attributes the high price of a Noz meal to the cost of flying in top-of-the-line Japanese seafood multiple times a week. He says most high-end counters have only 8 or 10 seats with a maximum of 20 guests a night.

While most restaurants depend on liquor sales to hike up check averages, the customers at sushi bars typically do not drink much. “The margins are impossibly thin,” he says.

Small omakase counters rarely order ingredients in bulk, he adds. Sushi Noz, for example, receives most of its products daily on overnight flights from Japan.

Foulquier says he pays “about US$350 per pound for abalone, unagi and some other key ingredients”. Staffing also contributes to the cost: the owner estimates there are “two and a half employees to every one diner” at Sushi Noz.
Noz Market’s Kaisen Don includes a rotating selection of seasonal fish, served sashimi-style over a bed of seasoned rice. Photo: Instagram/@nozmarketnyc

To expand their audience, earlier this year Foulquier and chef Nozomu Abe transformed their nearby speciality fish and Japanese fruit shop Noz Market into a dual-concept space with a 10-seat counter offering a US$140 omakase, in addition to a small stand-up bar that serves three hand rolls for US$25.

Charging significantly less, Noz Market serves as a “great entry point to the world of high-end omakase without the intimidating price tag”.

Other operators have decided to avoid the pricey sushi path altogether. Linda Wang operates seven casual sushi counters whose menus are all under US$110.

She has watched the explosion of high-priced openings; the US$400-plus meals are “insane” and “not feasible for most”, she says. It is the reason she chose to focus on counter experiences that a wider audience could afford.

She debuted her first location, Ume, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2018, after the start of New York’s extravagant omakase wave. She has followed up with six outlets in the past 18 months: Sanyuu, Thirteen Water, Sekai, Sushi Nikko, Shinn West and Shinn East.

“I wanted an omakase-quality sushi restaurant that people like me – at that time 23 years old and fresh out of college – could afford,” she says, noting that the price of a chef’s-choice sushi meal used to hover around US$200 but is now double that. The cost, she says, “is just not realistic for most people”.


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