On East 12th Street just below Union Square, there’s a big unmarked black door with a bouquet of dried flowers instead of a sign. Open the door and get past the velvet curtain, and you’ll find a narrow room filled with a rectangular sushi bar where 20 people sit ready to spend many hundreds of dollars watching one of the best restaurant games in the city. One chef is slicing immaculate pieces of trout and snapper and orata, another’s searing tuna with smoking coals, another is scraping meat off fish skeletons, and all of them are making constant calls to ensure that every person around that bar is happy. Everywhere you look, there’s action. This is Shuko, the Japanese restaurant where dinner at the sushi bar is like sitting courtside.
Courtside seats are a sign that you’ve made it. You get to watch every play up-close, feel like the V.I.P. that you are, and also see Turtle from Entourage, while pretending you don’t care that you see Turtle from Entourage. But you don’t need $10,000 worth of Knicks tickets to get that experience. You just need to go to Shuko.
Let us be clear. Shuko is expensive. Not ten grand expensive, but $180 for the omakase and $220 for the larger kaiseki menu. Once you factor in everything else, this is at least a $300 meal. But if you’re looking to have an incredible special occasion meal, and are able to pay for it, you absolutely should.
Most people here are celebrating something - birthdays, anniversaries, or Tuesdays. The courtside restaurant life is a party. A party where you have your own personal sushi chef, where your sake or cocktail glass is never empty, and where the music, never too loud, moves from Lauryn Hill to Wu Tang Clan to A Tribe Called Quest to Biggie. We’re not sure a piece of toro will ever taste as good as it did here, while listening to Juicy.
But nothing - not the chefs, the soundtrack, or the couple next to you trying to decide whether they should let their travel agent choose their vacation chateau - can distract you from the reason you’re here: the sushi. The omakase starts with three small prepared dishes, and then moves on to 18 of the best bites of fish we’ve ever eaten. There’s stuff like kanpachi, snapper, ocean trout, and uni - standards, only in the sense that you’ve maybe seen them before. That ocean trout is topped with grated lime and serrano, and the uni from Santa Barbara will wipe away every other piece of uni from your memory. There are also signature Shuko pieces - like the suji, a piece of grilled tuna topped with bird’s eye chili and scallion, wrapped in crisp seaweed - as well as seasonal specials, like fried cod sperm topped with shaved truffle. You’re going to want seconds and thirds of both.
The larger kaiseki menu includes the entire omakase, plus seven more cooked and prepared dishes like warm duck and buttered lobster. The best is a piece of milk toast that comes with toro tartare, uni, and caviar. It’s like spreading luxury on bread, and it’s the biggest reason why you’d want to get the kaiseki menu.
The kaiseki is never going to be the main event at Shuko. The real action happens during the omakase, when you take piece after piece of outrageously good sushi from a chef who’s completely focused on your experience. When you watch the people next to you order multiple rounds of $38-a-piece Drop The Mics (one bite of sushi with uni, toro, and caviar), and try to figure out who the regular across the bar is that knows every single person in this restaurant. It’s when you get a cocktail recommendation from your sushi chef, and sake help from your sommelier, and when the bar in front of you gets wiped the second you so much as spill a grain of rice on it. And it’s when you’re handed that next piece of fish, and you halt all conversation and tune everything else out so you can pay attention to that one bite.
After the omakase, a dessert granita will arrive. You’ll eat it in a few bites, but you won’t be ready to leave. Maybe you don’t want your birthday to be over, maybe you need a few more minutes to process what’s happened to you over the past two hours, or maybe you still haven’t figured out whether that really is Turtle over on the other side of the bar. All of these are reasons to add one last thing from the kaiseki menu: the apple pie with soba ice cream. This is your final reward for the life choices that have brought you to Shuko - a restaurant that will never disappoint. Unlike the Knicks.
This is the reason you come to Shuko. It’s 18 pieces of some of the best fish you’ll ever eat - like toro, striped amberjack, Santa Barbara uni, scallop, bluefin tuna, orata, fluke, glass shrimp, and two kinds of snapper, among many others. Also included are Shuko signatures like the suji, a one-bite handroll of grilled tuna and bird’s eye chili. If you think this might not be enough food, know that your omakase also includes the first three dishes from the kaiseki meal, plus a granita for dessert.
If you go for the larger menu, you’ll get the entire omakase, plus ten more cooked, prepared, and seasonal dishes. It’s a lot of extremely high-end food for an extra $40 - like buttered lobster with sunchoke, duck breast with parsnip puree, trout sashimi with ponzu, and the milk bread, toro, caviar, and uni combination that we’d happily eat for every meal for the rest of our lives. If it’s your first time here and you really want to see everything this restaurant can do, go for it. But most of the dishes, excellent as they are, just feel like the warm-up to the main sushi event.
There’s only one way to properly end a meal at Shuko, and that’s with apple pie. If you’re getting the kaiseki, it’s included. Otherwise, add it to your omakase and regret nothing.