One of the pleasant surprises for sushi omakase meal that my wife Jun and I have had in the past couple of years since we started dating in 2016 came from an unassuming restaurant in Brooklyn called 1 or 8, where chef Kazuo Yoshida offered a very memorable dining experience with carefully sourced fish and his minimalistic approach to the art of sushi making. Late last year, chef Kazuo jumped ship to a multi-restaurant concept called Juku in Chinatown, which consists of an izakaya on the ground floor and his omakase counter on the second floor. I have been meaning to check out Juku ever since the news of its opening to say hello to chef Kazuo (Jun was hoping that he would remember playfully showing us his own miniature figure at 1 or 8) and see if he was still killing it at the new location. We finally made it on a recent Friday evening. The transition from a cozy counter at a neighborhood Williamsburg restaurant to a counter inside a rather splashy modern Japanese space was noticeable, and it was evident that the audience at chef Kazuo’s new counter was not the Brooklynites living near 1 or 8, but hip, young crowds with financial means to splurge for a sushi omakase dinner. Granted, the pricing (at $80 per person for 12 pieces and $120 per person for 15 pieces) still feels like a bargain compared to the hyper-expensive places that have recently opened in the city, but the charm of a neighborhood gem was no longer there. Well, what about the food? Compared to our experience at 1 or 8, we (especially Jun) felt the individual pieces were somewhat uneven in terms of quality of fish and the use of seasoning, but we nevertheless had a pretty satisfying meal.
One thing that Jun and I both noticed upon being served the first couple of nigiri pieces was that the size of each fish seemed to have become smaller than what we had at 1 or 8. Maybe all the costs into building the restaurant’s glitzy space affected the “downsizing” of the fish size? And Jun immediately reacted negatively to the striped jack (shima aji) and soy marinated tuna that came as first and second pieces, remarking that the fish in both instances simply were not fresh enough (she senses the freshness of fish a lot better than I do). Other times, the use of seasoning was a bit of an issue. The fatty tuna (o toro) had superb, oily texture, yet it didn’t need the extra salt on top of it. Chef Kazuo brought in some interesting pieces that we had not previously seen at other sushi restaurants, like a maki of baby sardines, but I felt it overused the soy sauce to give a rather funky flavor to the fish.
Having mentioned all of these issues, I still felt the majority of pieces we sampled were wonderful, whether it was the golden eye snapper or Tasmanian king salmon that had silky smooth texture just the way I liked, or the Spanish mackerel with ghost pepper sea salt that had a very nice spicy kick, or the sea eel and the Hokkaido sea urchin (uni) that were literally melting in my mouth (and even won over Jun who is particularly sensitive to sea urchin’s quality and texture). Chef Kazuo also brought some interesting ingredients to the mix, such as Dungeness crab and the above mentioned baby sardines (although I have to confess neither was my favorite piece of the night), while also adding different types of flavor to give something extra to the fish, like the spicy scallion and the combination of lemon juice and sea salt that helped enhance the already delicious bonito and scallop respectively, or the yuzu flavor that worked beautifully with the Japanese grouper that displayed a surprisingly robust texture. A hand roll of fatty tuna, daikon radish and salmon roe was more or less a perfect ending to the meal that Jun and I also enjoyed a lot.
Getting a reservation at chef Kazuo’s counter seating (which can hold 12 guests at each of the three settings a night at 6, 8 and 10 p.m.) is likely to require an advance reservation through Yelp. There is a full bar (in addition to sake and wine options, you can also order cocktails from the izakaya space downstairs), but a carafe of sake is probably the way to go here. As mentioned above, if you are looking for a dinner in a hip setting with the latest Pop music coming out from the speaker somewhere, Juku can provide that experience. If you want a bit more low key setting, you might actually get distracted during your meal. When Jun showed chef Kazuo the photo of his miniature figure that he showed us two years ago (coincidentally, we visited Juku exactly two years after we went to 1 or 8), he chuckled and said the little one is on vacation. This is one restaurant where Jun and I debated for a bit which KenScale score should be given. I gave credit to all the positives from the meal, while Jun said it was hard to overlook some of the inconsistencies that she did not see at 1 or 8. In any event, compared to the other much pricier options in the city, Juku does option a nice value proposition, and I do think chef Kazuo has not yet entirely lost his touch despite some of the misses from the night. I will continue to monitor how Juku and chef Kazuo’s craft evolve over time.
KenScale: 8.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.0/10)
- Creativity: 8.5/10
- Execution: 8.5/10
- Ingredients: 8.0/10
- Flavor: 8.0/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
- Value: 8.0/10
Address: 32 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 1001
Telephone: (646) 590-2111