Nami Nori has modest goals and a limited menu. It isn’t breaking much culinary ground, and dinner there won’t last much more than an hour. But its ideas about value are fresh, and it gets things right that other, similar places aren’t even paying attention to.
It opened eight weeks ago on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village with a considerable publicity push, and it seems to have grown more popular since. Most of the 39 seats are for walk-ins, so reservations are scarce. I’ve always gone without one, arriving just before the doors open at 5:30 p.m. Every time I return, the line outside seems to have started earlier and grown longer.
A good part of the draw is that the menu reads as inexpensive. Temaki is the specialty, seasoned rice under a sushi-like topping, such as chopped yellowtail and scallions; each bundle is held together with a green-black square of nori. Almost all cost $5, $6 or $7, and you could probably make a light dinner out of five of them.
Most people will probably eat more than that. They’ll want to rummage through the appetizer menu, where some intriguing surprises are waiting, particularly the buttery miso-clam soup and the juicy squid fried in a batter shell that’s as fluffy and light as a new down jacket. And they’ll probably end the meal with one of the ice-cream sandwiches cleverly dressed up as temaki. But with a modest appetite or a minor act of self-discipline, you can keep your check under $30, before tax and tip.
English-speaking sushi bars usually call their temaki hand rolls, although “hand-rolled sushi” would be a closer translation. Unlike the spicy tuna maki that are tightly rolled up with a bamboo mat and then sliced into six or eight tidy drums compressed inside a skin of nori, temaki are shaped by fingers and palms, without the aid of any tool. They tend to have a slightly loose, casual appearance; like silk scarves on the shoulders of Parisian women, their nori wrappers seem to have fallen into the right position by accident. Because of this, temaki also have a tendency to unwind themselves, which is why they are generally passed straight across the sushi counter, from the chef’s hand to yours and from there, ideally, into your mouth.
At most omakase sushi parlors that roll will resemble a small ice-cream cone, with nori serving as the cone. For some reason, New York’s leading temaki bars use a different configuration: DomoDomo on West Houston Street, perhaps the first example of the genre, uses an open-ended cylinder that looks like the barrel of a gun. So do the Sugarfish spinoff KazuNori, in NoMad, and the Daigo Hand Roll Bar in the DeKalb Market Hall in Brooklyn.
Nami Nori has a temaki construction style of its own. Each square of seaweed is not wrapped or rolled, but softly bent into a U. Warm rice runs down the hollow. On top is what in sushiland is called the neta, the main ingredient. Naturally, yellowtail-scallion is an option, along with spicy tuna, or salmon with avocado or cucumber. Like the California roll, these are well-prepared if a bit tranquil; any one will do if you want to see a familiar landmark at the table.
The crab dynamite roll sounds as if it’s in that category, but the mall-sushi favorite has been stripped down to its impure essentials: snow crab and tobiko mayonnaise, broiled and pinched together in nori to which grains of puffed rice have been stuck.
Korea muscles into the striped-bass temaki with a fiery streak of chojang and a freshening garnish of slivered perilla leaves and daikon. China has made some exciting appearances, lending some XO sauce to the sea-scallop roll and fermented bean-chile sauce to a composition that distinctly evokes mapo tofu. It is one of several vegan temaki, including an irresistible one filled with eggplant pulp broiled with miso. A scattering of gobo chips on top serves the same function as the potato sticks on a Venezuelan hot dog.
The temaki arrive slotted into individual wooden holders that keep them from unbending while in transit. Because restaurants believe that people can’t consume food without explicit instructions, you are told to “try” to eat this square taco in two bites. Try? Take as many bites as you need. For me, it’s three or four.
The rice will be loose, barely held together by its own stickiness. And it will be seasoned by someone who knows the location of the spot where sweet meets tart. The nori will be so crisp that your teeth will slice through it like razor blades. This will be true whether you have a seat on a rattan stool at either of the two counters or at a whitewashed table in the front window. These are among the small pleasures a very good sushi counter reliably offers, generally at a much higher price.
The three friends who dreamed up Nami Nori — Taka Sakaeda, the executive chef; Jihan Lee, the chef de cuisine; and Lisa Limb, whose title is director of operations — met when they were working uptown at Masa. One of the most memorable occurrences at that restaurant is the moment when a chef extends a U-shaped temaki filled with chopped toro and scallions to signal that the blizzard of sushi has come to an end. Nami Nori’s founders have clearly studied the ways that Masa’s attention to minor details like crisp nori and clued-in service contributes to its overall sense of luxuriousness, and they’ve managed to transfer some of that sense to a restaurant that’s busier, less formally Japanese in design and less expensive. (To be fair, every other restaurant in New York is less expensive than Masa.)
Of course, Masa also communicates luxuriousness through a nonstop flow of truffles and caviar. White Italian truffles can be added to any of the temaki at Nami Nori for an extra $20, and Kaluga caviar for another $10, as my server kept reminding me the first time I ate there. I was never given the hard sell again, which is lucky, because if it had kept up I would have started wondering how committed the restaurant really is to keeping cheapskates like me happy.
Just because the prices are low doesn’t guarantee you will have an inexpensive meal. This is what I think of as the Smorgasburg Effect, named after the outdoor markets where almost everything seems to be just a little too small to be lunch. I’ve spent more than $100 a person at Nami Nori, without the aid of truffles but with the help of alcohol and sea urchin.