Silver-haired chef Toshio Suzuki, 67, is part of an elite group of sushi masters.
He intimately knows the art and science of preparing fish at its most minimalist and pure, from traditions passed down over the last 300 years.
A master sushi chef is a scientist, artist, psychologist, host, and performer all in one. If you get the good fortune of sitting at the sushi counter, you’ll be in Suzuki’s care for as long as you are there. He’ll read your mood, and wielding the tools of his trade (knives descended from samurai swords, and at times a torch), he’ll tend to your appetite, health, and overall well-being.
Suzuki is only one of a handful of master sushi chefs in the city who prepares sushi in the traditional Edo-period style. You’re not going to find spicy mayo or the fusion du jour here. Suzuki’s sushi is the real deal: fish expertly prepared so its pure flavor comes through clean, underlined by a smooth, melt-in-your mouth texture. The slight sweetness of the striped bass, the smokiness of the mackerel—these fish are enhanced ever so minimally, with specially customized vinegars, a brush of soy sauce and wasabi, and paired with sushi rice. The point is to enhance and preserve the umami flavor.
“The act of umami can only be accomplished by minimal human additives releasing the natural flavors within each individual ingredient and harmonizing perfectly when it touches your tongue,” Suzuki wrote on his website.
“We are in an age where the more we see generalization and exaggeration, the more we give birth to connoisseurs who seek the originals… and we believe that is our purpose; to satisfy the connoisseurs.”
Sitting down with Suzuki at his restaurant Sushi Zen, just west of Bryant Park, is an instructive, serene affair. Suzuki has been around long enough to see the evolution of attitudes toward sushi in New York City. When his restaurant first opened in 1983, diners didn’t know what to make of sushi, much less how to eat it.
Just to illustrate, diners just couldn’t deal with the texture of seaweed. It’s was long way from the ubiquitous snack it’s become, but that was then. He had to make rolls inside out (rice outside, seaweed inside) so people could eat them. His son, Yuta Suzuki, who runs the business with his father, recalls that his father “added the sesame seeds because he saw the burger buns at the time.”
To adapt to local tastes and thus stay in business, Sushi Zen served Americanized rolls. It wasn’t until 2000, and at a new location, that Suzuki reverted back to his traditionalist roots. His style goes back to the modern Edo period in 18th-century Japan, when sushi as we know now just came into being.
His expertise is such that chefs from the city’s best restaurants have sought out his knowledge through his seminars, including Daniel Boulud, Michael Anthony, Michael Romano, Ben Pollinger, and Seamus Mullen, among others.
Traditionally, at sushi restaurants, when you want the full sushi dining experience, you put yourself in the hands of the sushi chef, down to the ordering.
If you want to leapfrog from corner-deli sushi to really, really good sushi—out-of-this-world sushi—there are a few myths you need to have dispelled for you.
These days, the idea of farm-to-table, and the quickest path from field to belly, is popular. And if you’re talking about carrots or produce, it’s all well and good. For fish, that’s another story.
The best fish for sushi must be aged, matured—much. Time is needed for the enzymes to act on the amino acids and for the umami, that fifth, savory taste, to ripen.
“Tuna needs aging,” said Suzuki. “It makes it more tasty. Fresh fish, like fluke, if you can catch the fish and eat—you can’t eat it. They’re rubbery and have a flat taste. They need aging, maturing.” It’s simply a matter of waiting a few days for the fish to age.
It’s not a commonly known technique, but it’s practiced at the best sushi restaurants. Elsewhere it may not be economically viable.
In Japan, diners do expect to pay a fair amount for good sushi. Ordering the omakase there, where you let the chef order for you, simply has no price list. You just let the chef know when you’re full. It makes for a pretty hefty check. At Sushi Zen, to avoid big surprises, you can still order omakase, but there are different options and prices, at $59, $65, and $98.
Speaking of the bill, Sushi Zen is a relative deal. It’s not cheap but you can expect the quality of preparation of the fish to be comparable to the city’s best sushi restaurants.
Ikejime and Fish Safety
“Haven’t you ever seen chicken move like when their head is suddenly cut off?” Suzuki asked me.
He was drawing a parallel to the centuries-old tradition of ikejime, used by fishermen to catch and kill fish, using a needle to sever a nerve. It’s an extremely precise spot in the brain.
In a sense, Yuta explained, “The body thinks it’s alive—while the fish is not alive—so the fish stays fresh.”
It’s also considered the most humane way to kill a fish.
The technique originated in Japan but is used all over the world now, including by some fishermen on Long Island.
Fish can harbor bacteria and parasites, and must be treated. A freezing for a few days will kill off the parasites (salmon, for example, is especially susceptible to parasites).
For silver fish, using an abundance of salt, a technique that goes back to Japan’s Edo period, draws out the moisture out of the fish, and at the same time, neutralize bacteria.
The Japanese style of cutting fish yields minimal waste. “There’s really no waste to throw out, in reality,” Yuta said.
Earlier, Suzuki cleaned out a jackfish, leaving only a skeleton, the back fin, and a paper-thin, see-through sheath of flesh along the spine of the fish. It was impeccably done.
The direction of the cut also plays a big role in the tender of the fish. Like meat, for example beef, fish has a “line” as Suzuki calls it, or grain. When cutting, cutting against the grain will yield tender pieces of sashimi.
Octopus and squid are another story. Rather than the flesh having one direction, it’s more like a weave, so a number of cuts are necessary to make it tender.
At the Counter
Sushi at the counter is first-class dining. Suzuki takes care of you wholly. He is responsible for your care, feeding, health, and all-around happiness. He reads your mood, asks you how you’re feeling. If a diner is feeling run down, for example, Suzuki will prepare his fish with properties that will be energy-giving. (The color red, he says, is good in this case: tuna, for example).
For that, he draws from his extensive Japanese culinary knowledge, and theories based on Buddhism. Suzuki was going to become a monk before he entered the sushi world. Conversations with him can range from small talk to the culinary techniques in front of you, to life’s profound questions. It depends on your mood.
The C-shaped sushi counter is like a stage. All the more so because the refrigerated glass case that normally display the fish aren’t there. They’re built right into the counter, facing the chef, so there’s really nothing between you and the chef; you can watch his every move. And he is a performer on stage; it’s not an easy job. Placed in the spotlight, even seasoned chefs can experience stage fright, because most of them work in the kitchen, away from the public eye. It’s all the more amazing to watch Suzuki and his sushi chefs, and their deft, authoritative handling of the fish.
The Hands-On Sushi Experience
Across the C-shaped sushi counter, Suzuki hands me a small brown knob. It’s an $80 knob. It’s fresh wasabi, and it’s grated fresh against a sharkskin grater. That’s one sign of a serious sushi restaurant. The freshly grated wasabi is worlds away from the wasabi powder that’s made into a paste. The taste is bold and sharp but absolutely none of that stinging, burning feeling in the nose.
The sushi chefs actually apply a thin sprinkling of wasabi right under the sashimi, in between the sashimi and the rice, and for most fish, will brush the perfect amount of soy sauce on the sashimi for you, ahead of time. (That doesn’t go for octopus, or roe; the latter is marinated in soy sauce.)
It’s the norm to eat sushi with your hands. Chopsticks are too imprecise of an instrument, even for Japanese. You pick up the sushi and if you want to add some soy sauce, you just dab the fish side lightly in a little bit of the soy sauce. Whatever you do, make sure the rice doesn’t get in the soy sauce. It will soak it right up and overpower the taste of the fish. (And probably, your sushi chef will inwardly cringe.)
Suzuki also formulates his own rice vinegar. He found that the standard kind didn’t go with all the different types of fish, so he created his own, and it does.
There’s a short window of time to eat sushi, ideally: less than a minute.
Right when the chef prepares your sushi at the counter for you is the perfect time: the rice is still warm, and the fish isn’t yet drooping on the sushi rice. When you opt for omakase, he’ll make sure to wait till you’ve finished a piece before preparing your next one.
Dining at Sushi Zen
In Japan, seasons change exactly every three months, said Suzuki, much like clockwork. The diversity of climates, seasons, and landscapes also give rise to a diversity of natural ingredients and an appreciation of the seasons and their bounty. During the seasonal cycle, Yuta explained, minerals are washed down from the mountains into the bay, making for an especially rich feeding environment for fish.
“Our area has so many different kinds of shellfish and fish,” said Suzuki.
At Sushi Zen, the decor reflects the presence of natural materials. Bamboo lattices arch over the high-ceilinged dining area. As you enter, you can’t miss the centerpiece: a huge clay plate made by artist Jeff Shapiro, who was commissioned to make several of the other decorative plates there. They have a rawness to them, exuding a primal power associated with nature.
One of the meanings of Zen is simply “a plate.” But it also means “well-composed meal.” On his website, Suzuki explains how the left half of the character represents the human body, and the right means “good,” meaning overall good for the body.
108 W. 44th St.
Lunch: Monday–Friday noon–2:45 p.m.
Dinner: Monday–Friday 5:30 p.m.–10 p.m.
Saturday 5 p.m.–10 p.m.