A Moment of Zen
Cast in the shadow of the National Debt Clock ticking away near the IRS building, Sushi Zen may only be a few blocks from the hustle of Times Square, but it feels worlds away. That reserved presence is part of the restaurant’s appeal; and although each diner may believe that the intimate establishment is a secret known only to a select few, we’re afraid to say that the secret is out.
It was dark days for sushi in New York City when Sushi Zen opened its doors in 1983. Then-fickle U.S. diners wanted only rolled sushi or fried dishes, which forced the sushi master Toshio Suzuki to put aside his years of traditional training. But as sushi trickled into the culinary mainstream and patrons grew more adventurous, Suzuki gradually returned to his roots—the traditional Edo-period style of sushi making.
There’s nary a bad seat in the house, but according to Yuta Suzuki, Toshio’s son and the restaurant’s vice president, there is a preferred place of consumption. “If you want to really experience sushi, it’s at the counter,” he says. It’s there that his father, a mentor to Masaharu Morimoto and countless others, continues to hold court, and where you’ll find patrons such as Seamus Mullen of Tertulia and Daniel Boulud watching, learning, and—of course—feasting upon Suzuki’s creations.
Once seated, you may think you know what you want, but we suggest choosing the omakase (chef’s menu) and letting Toshio take control. Yes, there are the sushi staples, such as tuna or eel, but Suzuki also features lesser-known species when they’re in season. In the winter, seasonal fish may include fugu; in the warmer months, Suzuki might serve portions of buttery black-throat sea perch; at other times of the year, firefly squid could grace the menu. Of course, even familiar sushi fare will seem new and exciting thanks to a variety of house-made vinegars and soy sauces that Suzuki expertly pairs with each offering. The sushi master also uses 20 different knives, which he likens to instruments in an orchestra, to slice his delicacies. The long, slender knives, descended from samurai swords, might be the most impressive, but each knife has a unique role in preparation, he says.
Under Suzuki’s watch, each plate appears in front of his diners the moment that they need it, and he urges patrons to enjoy each creation within 30 seconds of its arrival. “That’s when the rice is warm and the fish is cold,” says Yuta. “The heat slowly goes into the fish, and it thaws the fish a little bit.”
The counter spectacle that patrons enjoy may be the final act, but there’s far more that goes into Suzuki’s nightly performances. For starters, the sushi master believes that the foundation of great sushi begins with the proper purveyor—the restaurant has worked with some companies for 30 years—but a transcendental sushi experience also requires that each type of fish be properly handled. Some fish need to be cryogenically frozen, for example, while others need to be salted. Suzuki believes that once chefs and diners understand this foundation, the evolution of sushi in the United States will continue. “The possibilities are endless,” he says.