Restaurant Review: Japanese Seafood Without the Painful Price Tag, at Wokuni


As a rule, the fish at Wokuni is exceptionally good and almost bizarrely fresh, shipped daily from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo or from a fish farm in Nagasaki owned by the restaurant’s parent company, Tokyo Ichiban Foods. (Its admirable motto: “We are changing the dietary culture in Japan with persistence.”) Raw or cooked, the seafood at Wokuni sets it apart from other izakayas in New York, best seen as embassies of Japanese drinking culture in which the food plays the role of the ambassador’s chauffeur.

Sushi is rare at standard izakayas, but it is made and sold at Wokuni, at very moderate prices. While many omakase chefs age their fish to make it supple and relaxed, the sushi at Wokuni is almost insolently fresh. And if you merely get a few $5 pieces of king yellowtail sushi, or $6 pieces of sea bream sushi, and maybe a slice or two of golden-eye snapper sushi at $9 each, you won’t regret it. The fish will be shiny. It will probably be chewy. The pinks and reds and ivories and whites in its flesh will be as distinct as if they’d been painted on with a nail-polish brush.

But sushi is not the highest use of Wokuni’s seafood. What the place lacks are the seasonal fish that can make a sushi excursion really memorable: gizzard shad, striped jack, firefly squid. When it comes to sashimi, though, this is not much of a liability, and the firmness of Wokuni’s fish becomes a point in its favor.

Before ordering sashimi — or, in fact, anything else — check the daily specials posted by the chef, Kuniaki Yoshizawa. They will almost always include several cuts of bluefin from farm-raised fish. If you come very early for lunch and manage to get the Wokuni don, a special that centers on a sashimi rice bowl and shrimp tempura, it will strike you as an incredible bargain at $24. The kitchen makes only five Wokuni-dons a day, though, so chances are you will have to content yourself with the kaisen-don, and chances are that even though it doesn’t include tempura, the $18 you pay will still seem like one of the best raw-fish deals in town.