Is New York losing its taste for pricey sushi?
Over the past half-dozen years, New Yorkers have gotten used to spending hundreds of dollars for chef’s choice sushi meals, a price tag that doesn’t include drinks or the tip.
But now the city might have reached saturation on those high-end omakase.
In late July, Midtown’s Michelin-starred Sushi Ginza Onodera, the Tokyo-based brand that in 2016 launched one of the city’s first high-end omakase — asking $400 for a roughly 20-course meal — announced its doors will close Aug. 19.
That comes on the heels of the shuttering of Kotaru, the $375 omakase spot within the modern Japanese restaurant Taru in Midtown helmed by Masa alum Tony Inn, both of which opened last December. Last month the slim space was re-concepted into a more wallet-friendly, $159-per-person Thai-themed pop-up named Sushi on Me.
Sushi Ginza Onodera General Manager Yoko Yamaguchi says that New York’s sushi scene has matured dramatically since the debut of the earth-toned eatery, in particular, the “significant increase in the number of high-end omakase counters.” And this market transformation “is one of the reasons we have decided to move on to the next phase.”
Yamaguchi says the team may open another elevated Japanese establishment elsewhere in the city. She believes the company’s next endeavor may feature “a more affordable format to cater to a broader range of guests.”
She’s among the operators who sees the audience for high-priced sushi in New York shrinking — or at least considering more affordable toro options.
The city isn’t turning its back on elite sushi and omakase. Earlier this summer, legendary chef Eji Ichimura returned to New York with a $425 menu in Tribeca. 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 U.S. in New York seven years ago, the city’s omakase scene was just beginning to blossom. Dining enthusiasts were clamoring to get into the West Village spot Nakazawa from Jiro Dreams of Sushi alum Daisuke Nakazawa, where the omakase was going for $150.
Since then, the Big Apple has welcomed no fewer than 14 sophisticated counters — many built from silky-smooth hinoki wood imported from Japan, accented with artisan pottery and equipped with just a handful of seats. Today a meal starts at $300, with the top-tier places running closer to $500. That’s not counting drinks beyond water, or tax and tip. That’s also not taking into account Masa — the leader in expense-account sushi, which currently charges $950, exclusive of drinks and before tax, to sit at the counter, without knowing whether chef Masa Takayama will be there to serve you.
It’s no surprise, then, that diners are beginning to balk at paying the equivalent of a laptop for a two-hour meal for two.
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 $495, agrees that the local high-end counter scene is getting crowded. He is “starting to see some dilution in the market” as places shut their doors.
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 eight 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 don’t 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 $350 per pound for abalone, unagi and some other key ingredients.” Staffing also contributes to the cost: The owner estimates there are “2½ employees to every one diner” at Sushi Noz.
To expand their audience, this year Foulquier and chef Nozomu Abe transformed their nearby specialty fish and Japanese fruit shop Noz Market into a dual-concept space with a 10-seat counter offering a $140 omakase, in addition to a small stand-up bar that serves three hand rolls for $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 $110. She’s watched the explosion of high-priced openings; the $400-plus meals are “insane” and “not feasible for most,” she says. It’s the reason that she chose to focus on counter experiences that a wider audience could afford.
She debuted her first location, Ume, in Williamsburg in 2018, after the start of New York's extravagant omakase wave. She’s 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 $200 but is now double that. The cost, she says, “is just not realistic for most people.”