Kuruma Zushi (NY) – The Wrong Quadrant

As I stated in the Sushi Yasuda thread, NY’s big three sushi players have done a fine job segmenting themselves in the market. Take Masa, Sushi Yasuda, and Kuruma Zushi; add in Urasawa (LA) and Sawa (Bay Area); and you’ve got the best raw fish in America on any given day. The beauty of the system is that there isn’t much overlap – each has a niche that it dominates.

Kuruma’s niche was serving the best raw fish on the East Coast (with Sawa being its equal on the West Coast.) One went to indulge in a hedonistic feast of sashimi, unrelenting even when the sub-standard rice made its way into the meal. Push on, get past the rice, and begin with the seconds of sashimi. It’s an approach that has left the chef, Toshihiro Uezu, befuddled in the past – how do they eat so much?

Over my last five visits, I’ve always done lunch. Enter the non-descript door, push (2) for the second floor, and make your way past the curtain. If you schedule a later lunch, say 1:00pm, the bar can be yours alone. The anti-social element in me likes that; especially in NYC where your elbow-mates could be self-described “shit kings.” In a city of millions worth trillions, a desserted temple of fish perched right under their noses.

This visit was a dinner. I touched down, debated Robuchon, but ultimately decided on the comfort of my sashimi secret. Imagine my surprise when I walked through those curtains to find a bustling sushi bar and restaurant – the secret’s out! There was but one chair left – for me.

“What would you like,” he asked. “You decide – I’ll eat anything.” The poor guy sitting next to me, obviously trying to impress his date on this particular evening, was counting his dollars – “How much is a toro sushi?” “$16!” Don’t come to Kuruma unless your credit card is paid off – little did I know those words would ring truer than ever.

Fresh, wild fish is not cheap. Not that I can always tell, but farmed fish definitely lacks flavor – you are what you eat – and farmed fish eat what their farmers feed them, instead of natural food. When the best fish is caught, no matter where, it takes an immediate journey to the Japanese fish auctions where it will most likely fetch the highest prices in the world. Once it’s bidded up to astronomical levels, it passes through a series of middlemen who add some sort of value or another (this could make a great and interesting study for an Economics student, particularly as it applies to Ronald Coase and his theory of the firm.) At this point, our friends the sushi chefs buy the best fish their clients can afford. And if it’s one of the five previously mentioned, that might entail over-night Fed-Ex’ing from Japan. This is a simplified description of the journey, no doubt filled with some error, but you get the gist of why this sushi can be so expensive. You can refuse to pay the prices, but unless you’re catching the fish yourself, you’re not getting the best. (Note: the book, Tsujiki: The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore Bestor, sounds like a fantastic study into this netherworld.)

Kuruma is usually among the very best – particularly his tuna, bonito, and shrimp. Disappointingly, not on this night. The fish was missing a step – it clearly fell into the second-tier occupied by Sushi Yasuda. Like a fine restaurant, one can’t expect every piece of fish to produce miracles but there was no majesty on this night. Mis-step one.

It was loud and busy – there was no calm. The fish wasn’t performing, the chefs were working too fast, and vacuums of the plate were immediately filled. Where was the pacing? Where was the oasis of calm? I ate seven sashimi dishes, seven sushi dishes, and three extras in an hour. Mis-step two.

And then came the bill. I’m no stranger to large sums but there’s a system for NYC sushi bills – Masa occupies the top, Yasuda the bottom, and Kuruma somewhere comfortably in-between. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

And then the bill came. Did I enter the wrong restaurant? Did I mistakenly request Masa take-out? Did that second floor exit lead me into an alternate reality where the rules were bent and twisted? I had a Kuruma dinner at Masa prices in Yasuda time. In ordinary terms, a very expensive meal in one hour. In strategic terms, the quadrant you try to avoid at all costs.

Lesson learned – eat at Kuruma for lunch. I’d still recommend it as the top NYC fish spot but I’d add a caveat where none existed before.

- chuck

  • http://www.aistesite.com Aiste

    Did you find the fish in Kuruma Zushi much better than in Sushi Yasuda, or are they on the same level?
    Great review by the way!

  • Adrian

    The new Vanity Fair has a great article on the Tsukisi. The value added by the middlemen seems to be the risk they take on ‘behalf’ of the sushi chefs. Without cutting open a tuna, unless you count the small sample they take from the tail, they have to evaluate and bid on the fish. Once it’s in their ownership, sushi chefs or other buyers can then look at the inside of the fish the middleman has purchased. What the middleman does is assume the risk of buying a bad fish in order to give other buyers perfect information on the quality of the fish.

  • ChuckEats

    Aiste, in the past, Kuruma’s fish (not rice) has been a step ahead. On this visit, the fish quality was similar. Out of five visits, Kuruma 4, Yasuda 1.

    Thanks Adrian – I’ll have to pick that up (as well as the book I mentioned) – makes a lot of sense!