2760 Fifth Avenue, Bankers Hill
It’s just beautiful — elegant and spare. Blue lights illuminate the lower half of Hane’s windows all around — useful, since I’m not sure the restaurant is otherwise identified at the door. Inside, the streetside walls are a lovely dark carnation-rose color, while behind the two sushi bars they’re white. The floor is shiny dark hardwood. The bars are black marble, the chairs and tables are black, and all around the periphery plushy banquettes in subtly patterned floral fabric (your rich aunt’s sofa) are illuminated by small, silvery, hanging light fixtures. Behind the bar closest to the door, the inevitable flat-panel TV is muted. (Why do sushi bars need TVs?) But there are large floral arrangements to look at, including on the counters behind the sushi chefs.
Would you believe that this is a branch of the legendary Sushi Ota, the no-frills P.B. strip-mall high temple of sushidom?
There are two other sushi bars within a block, Mukashi at the south end and Azuki a block and a half farther south, across Fifth Avenue. I’ve heard from a reliable source that Yukita Ota, being a gentleman, paid courtesy calls on those restaurants to gently warn them of the competition they’d be facing once Hane opened (of course he knows that he’s the biggest cheese), and perhaps to apologize, or something. But, yes, it’s here at last — Ota’s come to town!
Ota-san himself is still in P.B. some nights, but the food at the new location is nearly identical, if vastly more accessible to gaijin, due to the difference in the new restaurant’s construction and even personnel. Face it, Sushi Ota is something of an ordeal: cramped, ugly, crowded, noisy, hard to find (Vogue’s Jeffrey Steingarten got totally lost looking for it a few years ago), with not a lot of English spoken — and it’s so hard to get a reservation for the bar that even Samurai Jim’s martial arts sensei, who knows Ota personally, had to settle for table service when we ate there last year. To eat at Ota’s own station, you must reserve a couple of months ahead: Vacationing sushi cultists from Japan book their bar-seats before they’ve bought their plane tickets.
And now that the word is out, expect a crush here, too. Saint Steve and I were able to slip in spontaneously for an early-evening Wednesday sushi-orgy and sat right down at the bar. But ten days later, when I phoned on a Saturday to ask about “hours open,” the joint was audibly jam-packed and jumpin’.
Once seated, we quickly discovered that all the chefs at Hane (which is pronounced hah-NAY) speak English reasonably well (and the one gaijin at the counter, TJ, speaks Japanese fluently). There’s a lot of joking camaraderie among them that extends to the customers. Ota is hard, Hane is easy.
At the bar, you can watch artists creating edible, evanescent art. (You look, admire, then send it right down your digestive system.) Clearly these chefs have undergone the lengthy, strenuous Japanese sushi apprenticeship. (The only comparably rigorous process in the world is the French chef–apprenticeship system.) The fish aren’t displayed under the counter here but are kept chilled and individually wrapped. Watch the chefs’ discipline, their knife skills, their meticulous cleanliness (rewrapping the fish and then swabbing off the surface between species). After this, you may wince when you watch your less stringent, spike-haired, hang-loose-dude neighborhood-sushi chef at work.
We started out intending to order a standard sashimi combo plate, but when we saw a chef farther down the bar setting up an omakase sashimi, it looked a lot more fun, so we chose that instead. (The price was the same.) There was fatty toro (tuna belly), as silky and marbled as Wagyu beef. And top-quality, ultra-fresh uni, tucked into an empty citrus shell, along with crisp slices of slim Japanese cucumber and mirugai, giant clam, its somewhat chewy texture and buttery flavor contrasting with the pillowy, all-ocean sea urchin. The sweet raw shrimp (ama ebi) were the sweetest, and raw mackerel offered a clean taste and rich texture. The mackerel head and skeleton are arranged (as at Ota) into a boatlike shape with the skeleton as the sail. When you’re done, the chefs remove the mackerel boat and shrimp heads and cook them. Shrimp heads can be fried or grilled; we tried grilled and decided fried works better — grilling leaves a harder texture, with fewer edible parts. The deep-fried mackerel head and bones are crisp and delicious as potato chips. Steve bit into the skeleton. “Bacon!” he exclaimed doggily, teasing, “Fish bacon!”
We also tried the regular sushi sampler. Couples be warned: the plate offers only one of each item, except for a few tiny nigiri (one pair filled with tuna in the center, the other with Japanese mountain potato, yamaimo), so you just have to negotiate who gets what bite of uni, salmon roe, mirugai, hamachi, eel, snapper, squid, mackerel, and more. All pristine, with classic Ota-style rice, which is utterly neutral, less sweet than at other purveyors.
There were a couple of minor disappointments. “Honeymoon Oyster” (uni, oyster, masago caviar, and quail egg) is supposed to be glugged down all at once, but here the pair were twice the normal size (I should complain?) and, more problematically, nested in craggy oyster shells that looked as if they’d cut your lips. Eating them piece-by-piece with chopsticks isn’t quite the same. Then, too, I remember an excellent version at Ota of one of my favorite dishes, chawan mushi, a delicate egg custard studded with goodies, including gingko nuts (part of the standard recipe). No gingko nuts in this version (just numerous types of mushrooms), and the custard was thicker, less trembly than I remembered — all in all, the difference between a very nice dish and a thrill. The menu also includes a number of Japanese and fusion appetizers and a few entrées, which I’ll try another time — perhaps.
The sake list isn’t as long (or as top-end scary) as at Ota, but I was very pleased with a dry nigori “fizzy water” I hadn’t tried before. It seemed better suited to sashimi than the sweeter Takara (from Emeryville), the sushi-bar standard. This one costs a bit more ($15), but either the bottle was larger than Takara’s or the drier brew drank more slowly — one bottle (unshared but for a single sip) easily made it through the meal. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down its name, and Ota doesn’t offer a website to recheck this stuff, but it’s the only $15 nigori on the list.