Courtesy Luis Durand
Nov 8, 2022
An intimate dinner with strangers at Greenpoint’s U Omakase
An inventive and fun community-style Japanese restaurant leaves the stuffiness at the door and asks that you trust the process
As I approached the façade of U Omakase, a new Japanese restaurant in Greenpoint, head chef Yasu Hirashiki stopped me at the door. The staff was still cleaning up from the earlier dinner session and needed 10 minutes.
But before I had the chance to leave for a lap around the block, he peppered me with questions. Soon we were talking about my summer living in Tokyo and his art career. A few minutes later, two more diners joined the conversation — a couple who were longtime customers at the chef’s old restaurant, Sushi Yasu in Forest Hills — and Hirashiki pointed out commonalities between us.
As I would learn over the course of the evening, this is what dining at U Omakase is all about.
At many omakase restaurants there’s a serious atmosphere centered around watching the head sushi chef prepare your courses right in front of you. When co-owner Luis Durand, his wife Kate, and business partner Arnon Magal opened U in September, they wanted to leave that seriousness behind.
“One thing that somebody told me that was really funny was, ‘Seeing how you guys act would never make me think that I’m about to have the dinner that I just had,’” Durand says.
Galvanized by the private dinners and pop-ups they did during the pandemic, Durand and Hirashiki wanted to create a communal fine dining experience in a casual setting that placed the focus on having fun and meeting new people.
The restaurant’s layout — an open concept featuring a kitchen in the back and a giant 13-person U-shaped bar in the front — allows just that. During my visit I found myself shouting across the bar to the couple I had met earlier and talking with the couple next to me about everything from work to travel to dating.
At $89 a person — for at least 13 plates and sake — Durand’s omakase is more approachable for those hesitant to spend hundreds of dollars on one meal. Everything except the oysters — which are picked up daily from the nearby Greenpoint Fish and Lobster Company — is flown in fresh from Japan, making the dinner a great value.
On the night of my visit, our 15-course meal kicked off with an oyster topped with salmon roe, ponzu sauce, sesame oil and chives. It was a refreshing briny punch, perfect for whetting the appetite. Next a bouillabaisse with shiitake mushroom, leek, and plump pieces of shrimp and scallop served as a miso soup substitute.
Later, Durand asked for my feedback on the soup, admitting that he wasn’t sure if he was happy with the final product. He says collecting input from diners is an opportunity to further integrate them into the experience.
“I make people try it like they’re at my house,” he says
Next came the restaurant’s most Instagramable dish — king salmon belly topped with tobiko, chives, fried shallots, and some chili oil, smoked with pecan wood. It arrived in a glass jar and when opened, it gave the effect of smoke pouring out of a cauldron. The fish was still cold but had a rich smoky flavor. Paired with the crunch of the shallots and heat of the chili oil, it was one of the most creative dishes on the menu.
A delicately-fried piece of soft-shell crab came next, atop a cauliflower puree with truffles and a side of lightly-pickled cucumbers, it offered a nice crunch without being overindulgent.
Then, a piece of sweet botan shrimp arrived, bursting with umami that coated the mouth with a pleasant fishiness. An assembly line of dishes followed, starting with bluefin tuna carpaccio topped with freshly grated wasabi. Wild Hokkaido salmon glazed with soy sauce came next, then Japanese Spanish mackerel with maitake mushrooms, torched yellowtail, some sweet sea bream glazed with ponzu sauce, and uni (sea urchin), each seeming to one-up the previous dish.
That brought us to a generous chunk of Alaskan king crab paired with a sunset geranium petal and a beurre blanc sauce, which was the actual star of the dish. Durand made the butter-based sauce with a vin juane — a nuttier French wine — and an oil composed of leek and tangerine leaves. It was creamy and unctuous, I could have eaten it on its own.
Lastly, a piece of fatty salmon with some gorgeous marbling, perhaps the standout of the night, and a Hokkaido scallop topped with roe — Chef Hirashiki’s specialty — brought us to desert, sake-soaked gooseberries topped with fresh crème.
Throughout the night, the party vibes never subsided. My sake glass was almost never empty and we ended the evening by singing happy birthday to one of the dinner guests before taking a shot of Maker’s Mark with the staff.
The only downside to the experience is that the restaurant’s layout doesn’t offer everyone a clear view into the kitchen. Watching the chefs prepare your meal is part of the fun of omakase. First-timers should ask to be seated closer to the kitchen. But whether you’re a novice or an old hand, U Omakase is as good as any other option in Brooklyn or Manhattan.
“There are differences between most omakase restaurants, but the word actually means ‘to entrust,’” says Durand. “It’s a concept that I think is so popular in the U.S. because we all need a little more trust, especially nowadays.”
U Omakase is located at 173 Greenpoint Ave. in Greenpoint and is open from 6 to 10:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Trust.
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