New York City’s High-End Japanese Restaurants Deliver $800 Sushi to Survive – The Wall Street Journal

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, New Yorkers had a hard time scoring a seat at chef Nozomu Abe’s Michelin-starred restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Now Mr. Abe brings Sushi Noz’s $325 omakase tasting menu directly to diners, catering small events and intimate private meals at homes, even though that frequently involves two-hour drives to Long Island’s East End.

“Many of my customers are not in New York City, so I get called to the Hamptons, six to eight times a week, sometimes three times a day,” the chef said.

The pandemic hasn’t changed what well-heeled foodies like to eat, but it has upended where some of them live and their thinking on dining out.

Some high-end Japanese restaurants have reinvented themselves to accommodate the migrations and shifting habits. Sushi Noz and others now trek to the second homes of New York City residents in the Hamptons and the Hudson Valley. Other restaurants, such as chef Masayoshi Takayama’s three-Michelin-starred Masa, have entered the delivery business in Manhattan. Masa now sells $800 sushi boxes meant to feed a four-person household.

Nobu Yamanashi of Yama Seafood, which turned to deliveries. ‘We now have a new retail business line,’ he says.

Photo: Victor Llorente for The Wall Street Journal

Even Yama Seafood, an East Coast fish distributor that supplies several high-end sushi restaurants in New York City, has recognized the changing demands. When the pandemic hit, the supplier cut its staff to 15 from 75. To survive, it started delivering to wealthy clients a rare cut of tuna, known as kama-toro; live Japanese hairy crabs; and Daisen sea urchins that cost $1,000 for 350 grams, or about 12 ounces.

“We now have a new retail business line,” said Nobu Yamanashi, director of Yama Seafood.

While some have been able to adapt and thrive, other Japanese restaurants, especially midprice outposts, have folded. Omakase by Teisui near Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, and Inakaya in Times Square, have closed permanently, according to their websites. Diners at those restaurants typically paid $85 to $150 for their meals. Some high-end establishments, such as the two-Michelin-starred Sushi Ginza Onodera on Fifth Avenue near Bryant Park, have closed temporarily.

A Yama Seafood delivery.

Photo: Victor Llorente for The Wall Street Journal

“There is a real danger that if not careful, over 70% of Japanese restaurants in New York City may disappear,” said Chikako Ichihara, treasurer of the New York Japanese Restaurant Association.

Some of the city’s Japanese restaurants were already facing tough challenges to their business, industry experts say, including limited options for funding.

Ms. Ichihara said Japanese restaurants lack local community support because of the relatively small Japanese diaspora in the U.S. By contrast, Chinese and Korean restaurants are often supported by a strong network of community banks, she said.

Ms. Ichihara said she estimates that 90% of Japanese restaurants in New York are funded by individuals, while only 10% of the financial investments come from Japanese restaurant groups.

Finding an experienced trained sushi chef and paying for the chef’s visa can also be too pricey, she said, especially for midrange Japanese restaurants. These restaurants, which offer meals that typically cost $100 to $150 a person, also haven’t shifted to delivery service during the pandemic as easily as high-end and low-price sushi shops, according to Aaron Allen, of restaurant consulting firm Aaron Allen & Associates.

O.d.o., a 12-seat counter restaurant, opened in the Flatiron District two years ago.

Photo: Victor Llorente for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Ichihara said some high-end restaurateurs have also seen an opportunity in more down-market fare.

Two years ago, Hiroki Odo opened o.d.o., a Michelin-starred 12-seat counter restaurant in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, selling a $200 nine-course chef’s choice menu.

In June Mr. Odo, a master chef, launched a new casual sushi line in Brooklyn called HALL by ODO. The new restaurant sources its sushi in Japan, but keeps the cost low by slicing and flash-freezing slabs of sushi-grade fish into bite sizes at a central kitchen. Then the fish is flown directly to New York.

Mr. Odo said he has managed to serve high-quality sushi at $23 for a 10-piece delivery box.

“Timing was actually good, because with the pandemic, demand for delivery rose quickly,” he said.

Chef Hiroki Odo at his o.d.o. restaurant in Manhattan. His HALL by ODO in Brooklyn sources its sushi in Japan.

Photo: Victor Llorente for The Wall Street Journal

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Appeared in the November 27, 2020, print edition as ‘Japanese Restaurants Deliver Sushi To Homes to Survive the Pandemic.’