Taste the Chefs of the Boroughs
Taste the Chefs of the Boroughs
Letting the chef take the wheel—“o-makase,” translating to “I’ll leave it up to you”—is a Japanese culinary pastime where master chefs cater to guests in the way that they deem best fit at that specific moment. Anyone dining under the guidance of the chef is subject to a menu that could vary on any given day, because the meal is centered on freshness. This need to trust the professional can intimidate some diners, but those that can accept the methods behind the madness, ultimately get the highest possible quality in every piece of food that they eat: only the freshest for you. Granted, the standard NYC omakase can cost you a small fortune, especially if you pair your dining experience with libations, typically also of the chef’s choosing. If a chef enjoys the complement of spirits with certain foods, that may be reflected in the preparation of the flavors. The order in which the items come out has as much to do with the meal as the food itself, as do the course-by-course drink pairings, so buckle up for the ride. And if you want the all-in experience, including alcoholic beverages to boot, be ready to shell out some cash.
That being said, all you need in order to have a truly experiential meal is an MTA MetroCard. Here’s a brief look at where you can travel in the outer boroughs of NYC for your own affordable chef’s tasting experience.
A quick trip on the R subway to 46th St. station or on the N subway to the Broadway station brings you to Astoria, Queens, home of a bustling and expanding restaurant scene known predominately for its authentic Greek cuisine. Fittingly so, the name of Astoria’s omakase-focused restaurant is Gaijin, translating to “outsider” in Japanese. The restaurant’s kitchen team—led by Executive Chef Mark Garcia—hails from Chicago, and came to NYC to collaborate for the restaurant’s conception. Their preparation tactics are far from conventional, and the use of varying spices and flavors into each piece of sashimi gives the items their own life. Pictured below is the Hamachi: a piece of yellowtail topped with soy, butter and banana pepper, and briefly blowtorched.
Though the restaurant does have an enticing outdoor garden space, its focal point is the omakase counter, where the guest is served directly by the sushi chef, who prepares the fish in front of the customer. A number of the courses are momentarily heated with a blowtorch, providing texture and consistency to pieces of fish that need to be eaten instantly for maximum appreciation. The full omakase experience begins with a seasonal appetizer and then a housemade soup; pictured below is the Dobin Mushi, a razor clam broth with mushrooms and Caledonian shrimp, which the chef recommends to be eaten broth first, vegetable and fish second. A reasonable level of spiciness in most of the courses provides a punch that lingers on the tongue alongside flavors of fresh cuts of sashimi. The 16-course omakase rounds out with an ice cream cone.
Travel across the Kosciuszko Bridge and down the BQE to Williamsburg, to the brand new omakase-focused restaurant Belly, serving up bacon-centric meals of bacon, bacon and more bacon. The restaurant strives to use omakase as a gateway to showcase meat-focused Korean cooking techniques, and offers an affordable alternative to the typically costly omakase experience. Nine courses (including a bacon-flavored whipped-cream-topped doughnut) runs you $45, and can be paired with nine libation tastings for an additional $35. The $80 drink-included meal costs less than most of Manhattan’s tasting menus sans alcohol, and includes several hearty, sizable dishes that are sure to fill you up.
The trip to Brooklyn is worth it for this little slab of heaven, which begins a slice of thick candied bacon, served on soft white bread and topped with housemade kimchi butter. The meal also includes a piece of pork belly sushi, a bacon steak, a fried bacon schnitzel, and a bacon-eggplant steamed rice dish with pork shoulder, topped with an over easy egg.
To get to Staten Island from Manhattan, take the 1, R or W subway to South Ferry/Whitehall Street and board the free Staten Island Ferry at South & Whitehall sts. Onboard the ferry, a cash bar offers travelers beer and wine for the approximately 25 minutes. When you arrive at St. George Terminal on Staten Island, take a short walk up to Nick Laporte Pl., which turns into Hyatt St. at Stuyvesant Pl. Find Enoteca Maria, at 27 Hyatt St., serving some of the most authentic, home-cooked Italian and global cuisine New York City has to offer.
Every day when the restaurant opens (W-Su), a new “Nonna”—AKA a single-day head chef grandmother—takes the helms of one of the restaurant’s two kitchens, with her own menu. Customers can order off of the conventional Italian menu, prepared in one kitchen by a regularly staffed Italian Nonna, or they can allow themselves to indulge in region and country-based offerings prepared in a second kitchen, specifically for a menu designed by that day’s chef. While the restaurant began its venture with Nonna’s strictly from different regions in Italy, in 2016 the idea expanded beyond Italy, and now features women from different countries all over Europe and beyond, serving a nightly a la carte menu of their own homemade specialties. Tonight (Aug. 11,) Nonna May Joseph from Sri Lanka takes over the kitchen; and next week, Colombia, Syria, Campania, Italy, Bulgaria, Puerto Rico and Peru will all be represented.
All of these culinary adventures into the different sub-cultures of New York require trusting the kitchen; and whether it’s the Chicago-native creative sushi geniuses at Gaijin, the contemporary Korean food gurus at Belly, or the Nonnas on Staten Island at Enoteca Maria, trust your kitchens you should.