Break-ups are not all bad. The proof? Neta – the happy product of Chefs Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau separating from their significant others, Masa and Masa Bar, respectively, to open a more approachable but still very serious sushi joint in The Village. I recently went there (or was taken there, rather) and had a fantastic omakase that seemed to highlight individual ingredients as its primary objective (hence the name of the place, which translates to “(sushi) ingredient”) as well as showcase the creativity and technique of the chefs through clever ingredient pairings and preparations as a secondary objective.
The interior is minimalist and clean, with a long bar overlooking the handiwork of various sushi chefs who will put some of their creations in front of you after adding the final touches and explain what they have made before ducking back to the other side of the bar to continue their work. Our waiter was courteous and mindful of our preferences, making sure to specify the difference between the various dining options and coming particularly in handy when choosing a sake to pair with our dishes. The kitchen was also quite accommodating when it came to our timing – they sped up service without making us feel rushed so that we could catch our 8:00pm show.
To start I had the Severed Anchor, a cocktail made of smoky Suntory Hakushu Japanese whiskey infused with bonito (tuna flakes) and then combined with Bushmills and Tenryo Hidohomare sake on a block of ice. The garnish was a bouquet of bonito flakes mounted onto a pick that was fastened to the cup instead of just lolling around in there. I really appreciated this attention to detail, because it made it so that the flakes stayed in one place, right above my nose – as I sipped the smokey whiskey, the fishy, nutty aroma of the bonito mixed with the flavors of the drink, rounding out the experience. It also saved the delicate flakes from dropping into the liquid and becoming soggy.
Dungeness Crab: Squeaky clean flavors and simple textures made for a smooth departure, getting the face ready to chew without throwing anything too exciting at the palate. Sweet, moist and spongy Dungeness Crab served with thin slivers of crisp cucumber and some parsley for an herbal kick. The salad was dressed with a dashi vinaigrette which kept everything very light, adding a hint of acidity and umami without stealing the show from the dulzor of the crab flesh. The ratio of crab to cucumber spoke of the generosity of the kitchen and I appreciated the thinness of the cucumber slices because it directed my attention onto the firm yet fibrous texture of the crab.
Spanish Mackerel Tataki: The chef seemed to have almost as much fun making this as I had watching him make it. Layers of icy cool, glossy and very clean mackerel without a drop of that stinky oil this fish in its smoked form is notorious for, layered two or three times over with a Myoga veg salad consisting of what I think was shredded daikon radish that had very little flavor but a wonderful hydrating affect. The salad was tossed with a bit of Myoga ginger – its ultra-fresh, facial-tissue-floral flavor shone through and licked at the cool fish. For some crunchy comfort and contrast fried bits of tempura were added to the tataki as well, rounding out the texture of the dish while adding a necessary fatty element to an otherwise crispy clean bite.
Toro Tartar and Caviar: This was a very nice dish of minced fatty tuna belly topped with some pungent, murky and surprisingly firm sturgeon caviar which went with it very nicely. It was served in a champagne glass with a side of some of the most pleasant toast points I’ve had in a while, with a crunchy charred exterior but very soft on the inside. Unfortunately, the char on the toast overpowered the tuna belly a bit, so I chose to forgo them. They would be nice with some butter for breakfast though.
And a little something fried. Fugu (blowfish) tempura served with tempura-ed shiso leaf, yam, sweet potato and shiitake mushroom. In this case the fugu was cut correctly so it did not end up shriveling up my arteries and poisoning me. It was delightfully soft and reminded me of the perfectly cooked flesh of swordfish. The tempura crust was thick enough to add some crunch and comforting oily nuttiness, but not thick enough to overpower the delicate white fish inside. I’m not sure which part of the blowfish this was and why there was a large bone in the middle, but my guess is that it served as a way for the guest to have to work around the bone and thus have more than one bite of the juicy fish, enjoy it a bit longer, despite its size. The shiso leaf was nice fried, as it was very thin and brittle, breaking into little pieces and melting on the tongue, leaving its slightly minty flavor behind. The rest of the vegetables were a tad too heavy to be deep fried in my opinion, especially when served with something as delicate as blowfish. I guess it’s a tradition in Japanese cuisine to have multiple ingredients prepared in this same way on a single tempura platter, but I would’ve preferred not having to hunt around for the star ingredient hidden between two deep fried starchy veggie blocks.
Szechuan Spiced Salmon: A great idea and one that makes me wish I could eat larger portions of starches like rice and feel comforted by the volume instead of bloated by it. But – alas! – I can’t, so for me personally the ratio of rice to salmon was a bit too high or the dish itself was a bit too large overall. Otherwise I was very fond of this dish. Crispy rice with only a very subtle hint of jasmine serving as a canvas for the spicy salmon on top to shine through. The salmon was very luscious, mushy and comforting with a slight spice which made the thing interesting without making the mouth tingle too much. On top, angelic little curls of paper-thin bonito flakes (dried tuna flakes) which provided a nice salty, musky, smoky fish essence to the clean, cool spicy salmon.
Grilled Scallop: And then there was this guy, by far my favorite of the night and truly a signature of the place in that it juxtaposes two beautiful ingredients and tweaks them just a tad to emphasize the richness of their textures and flavors. Tender, translucent Boston sea scallop grilled on the half shell until warm and almost creamy in texture served on that same shell with cool wads of San Diego uni folded over them. The contrast of cold urchin roe and toasty warm scallop was unexpected and very nice. When combined in the same bite, the warmth from the scallop helped denature the urchin into an almost custard-like mash of marine goodness, without needing to chew it at all. The urchin, eager to please, wrapped itself both around my tongue and around the scallops, hydrating both with its sickly sweet low-tide brine. Thin bits of maitake mushroom were there for some firmness and the whole thing was sitting in a pool of broth made of garlic, soy sauce and butter. The flavors of the broth were quickly picked up by and projected onto the scallops. Some lime was provided for extra freshness but I decided not to funk with what the uni was so generously giving to me and I left it off. Maybe dripped into the broth it could’ve been nice, but the risk of killing the dish kept me far away from it.
Wagyu Beef Tataki: Earth. Thin, rare slices of wagyu beef seared very briefly and flavored with a bit of vinegar (and maybe soy?) as well as ginger. Equally beefy forest-and-soil maitake mushrooms layered over the beef and a generous amount of black perigord truffles sprinkled over the top. The latter complemented the beef with its dank umami, as well as adding a slightly gummy bite to the dish.
The final course was a doubled up platter of sushis, rolls and bite-sized creations. Among the sushi were lean tuna, Spanish mackerel with a bit of crispy panco on top, wild salmon with a dot of mustard, yellowtail, tuna belly, grilled tuna belly sinew with scallion, and an almost gelatinous translucent raw scallop. Among these, the grilled toro sinew was by far my favorite, as the heat of the grill softened it a bit and leant a smokey flavor, which went wonderfully with the natural beefiness of the toro. There was also a tempura shrimp which was a crunchy, nutty complement to the slick smoothness of the fish around it, as well as a teriyaki eel which had a great smoky, sweet (almost BBQ?) flavor to it and was very nice with the crisp, fresh celery log it was served in. There were two little rolls there too, both containing tuna and scallions wrapped in a surprisingly thick layer of glossy black seaweed– I think one was with toro and the other akami but these weren’t AS memorable as the other things on the platter so I could well be wrong. A spoonful of one of the house specialties, the warm “uni risotto” was also provided. It was more of a porridge than a risotto as the rice was very fine and disappeared a bit in all of the delicious uni cream around it. It was topped with some very finely sliced mushroom for textural contrast. Warm, mushy and rich. I would’ve liked a tiny bit of something crunchy to spread it on – but that might just be my bread-and-butter Western approach to things.
The Extravagant Bastard: I don’t know if this guy is even on their menu but my savvy dinner companion specifically asked our waiter for it and the latter responded with an expression that displayed his initial confusion about the fact that we know of this thing, and then a hushed recognition when a fellow Neta regular chimed in to help us out. I don’t think it has a name so I’ve christened it appropriately. Toro uni and caviar topping an otherwise humble seaweed wrapped rice stage and topped with gold flakes which shone dramatically against the black of the caviar. While the toro and caviar dish previously mentioned worked very well, this one for me was a bit too stupid in that it threw together not two but three egotistical ingredients which all deserve credit on their own, and which had not too much to do with one another besides the fact that they all came from the sea. A fight ensued. Toro vs. uni for texture, caviar vs. uni for flavor. The result, for me, was the toro being overpowered by the uni and the fishy, salty caviar robbing the uni of that ever-so subtle marine twang I love in this ingredient so much. Definitely one to show off about but not a combination I was otherwise too fond of.
Overall, I had a great experience and am looking forward to returning soon!