Food court omakase in Chinatown
Domo Sushi is easily overlooked. It’s a narrow three-seat counter within Mott Street Eatery, the new Chinatown food court whose vibe is more Flushing mall basement than high-rise ground floor. As I made the rounds of the other stands during my first visit to the food court, snagging shrimp shumai, pork potstickers, and a taro ice cream smoothie, I kept glancing back at Domo Sushi’s booth, waiting to see a customer sit down. No one did. The “Reserved” sign on the counter held places for guests who never came.
Out of curiosity—why was everyone avoiding it?—or out of guilt, I stopped by. I ate a few intriguing pieces and resolved to return for a longer meal when I had more time.
The chef introduces himself as Jiro. He and his wife are hospitable; when I cough at some point during the meal, she hurries to bring me a cup of hot green tea. For almost 20 years, Jiro operated Tokyo Bay, a sushi bar in Tribeca, but when the pandemic hit, his would-be outdoor dining space was blocked by a Citibike rack. With business flagging, he closed down. His new spot within the food court is less space, less fuss, easier to manage.
There’s a lot going on in every bite of sushi at Domo. A piece of tuna nigiri has three slices of fish and a shaved winter truffle. There are lots of toppings and garnishes, often several at once: familiar ones like scallions, yuzu paste, and fried shallots; less common ones like banana pepper, a tempura-fried shiso leaf, thai basil, and tomato; even weirder ones like little spheres of crispy rice and a stick of dried, cured tuna roe that looks like sausage and that Jiro grates like cheese.
But don’t let the novelty put you off: it’s yummy, not gimmicky. I was apprehensive when presented with a single piece that combined otoro, caviar, and dungeness crab. Would this, mixing together several different pieces of expensive-sounding seafood, be the equivalent of adding gold leaf to a dish? Needlessly excessive just for the sake of being excessive? But it actually worked very well: the salt and acidity of the caviar cut through the unctuousness of the tuna; the crab undertones were a groovy but unobtrusive bassline.
More pieces come. Fluke with ume and shiso, fluke tempura with yuzu: both good. My notes contain an exclamation mark next to “shiso tempura,” so I must have liked the lobster nigiri that had it.
Despite my efforts to hide my notebook under the counter, Jiro’s wife notices my scribbling. She asks, “Are you a food critic?” I’m not sure what to say. I write about food, but not the way that Pete Wells and Soleil Ho and Robert Sietsema do: I am worse at it, and no one pays me.
“I wish,” I finally reply.
How do restaurant reviewers take notes? Do they tap away on their phones at the table, looking like rude diners rather than professional diners? Do they go to the bathroom to jot things down? Or do they quit the charade and keep their notebooks out in the open? Plenty of NYC restaurant professionals already know what Pete Wells looks like, even though I don’t.
There’s a piece of Norwegian salmon with tomato. Jiro blowtorches it and adds a dollop of mayonnaise before serving. The combination of flavors is just like a BLT. I love it.
Is Jiro actually his real name? I dunno. Tribeca Citizen covered a chef’s migration from Tokyo Bay to Domo Sushi with his wife. The chef in that article is named Billy Liu. In my head, too embarrassed to ask for confirmation, I imagine a backstory. Omakase meals are where the money is—Domo’s website even writes:
Presently, in response to the transformation of the traditional market, Master Jiro creates a new position for himself and his company as modern omakase creators.
If you’re going to reinvent yourself, why not pick the world’s most famous sushi chef as your nom de guerre?
Whatever his name is, I prefer this Jiro. Sukiyabashi Jiro, the now-legendary restaurant in Jiro Dreams of Sushi, was dropped from the Michelin Guide because it’s so hard to get a reservation that it’s essentially closed to the general public. Domo Sushi is the polar opposite. You can drop by any time, sit down if you like. In a city full of expensive omakase meals, counters made of 200-year-old wood that take weeks to get a seat at, and insufferable sushi bros, Domo’s openness is a breath of fresh air. You aren’t cloistered away in a small room whose silence is only punctuated by the chef’s occasional intonation of “[Japanese fish name]: [English fish name], from [location].” Domo’s background noise is the constant murmur of the dozens of other diners seated at plastic tables around you and some tacky music. (The same light piano renditionof “Chariots of Fire” played twice during my meal.)
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Let’s talk about prices. $70 at Domo Sushi will get you 9 pieces plus a hand roll: big enough for a filling lunch but served fast enough for you to make your next meeting. 13 pieces + a hand roll is $100. You can get delicious meals in NYC for far less than $70, of course, but sushi can cost a lot. Domo is a first-rate example of second-tier sushi. At the top of the market, there’s the $200-to-infinity luxe bracket, with increasingly elaborate set menus the higher you go. Domo is one of several fine restaurants in the $60-to-$150-range that will serve you a delicious omakase menu with less of an emphasis on fish flown in from Japan the night before and more on experimentation with toppings and preparation. Peers in the second category include Sushi Katsuei, Sanyuu West, and Uotora.
Domo, by price, is an outlier in Mott Street Eatery. At all the other restaurants, you can get a generously-portioned meal for $20, tops. Maybe that’s why most of the food court diners pass it by?
Business is picking up. Though I was the lone customer during my first visit, someone ordered a tuna roll and eel roll to go during my second meal. And on my third trip, a customer came all the way from New Jersey to get takeout from Domo Sushi. Jiro says that dinner is busier still.
Domo Sushi is not The Absolute Best Sushi Bar In New York City, but not every sushi bar needs to be. It is a Get You a Man Who Can Do Both sushi bar, a grab-and-go sushi bar and also a shut-your-eyes-out-of-joy-while-chewing-that-piece-of-nigiri sushi bar. It’s a sushi bar from a couple who had a tough time during the pandemic but who are back to cheerfully serving fish and panna cotta and green tea and who are Gonna Make It Work. I’m rooting for them, and after your meal there you will be, too.