This article is part of a guide to New York from FT Globetrotter
This is part of a collaboration between the FT and Nikkei, in which Nikkei journalists and correspondents write about their favourite Japanese restaurants in cities around the world.
Are you in New York and craving top-quality Japanese food? You’re in the right place. The city has the highest number of Michelin-starred Japanese restaurants outside Japan — even more than other foodie metropolises such as Paris and London. There is also a host of excellent, more low-key Japanese restaurants, too.
I came to the US from Tokyo almost 20 years ago, arriving as a cash-strapped student in Austin, Texas, where I was constantly dreaming of authentic and affordable Japanese restaurants. Two years later, I moved to New York and discovered an ever-growing range of Japanese eateries from high-end omakase and kaiseki to casual motsu nabe joints. The Japanese-restaurant scene in the city is so vast and profound that I even stopped feeling my urge to return home to my country’s fare.
In a city with more than 25,000 restaurants, New York chefs need to be constantly at the top of their game. One bad meal can ruin a reputation. Japanese restaurants are no exception. Here is my tried and tested guide to the best of the bunch. All are in Manhattan, with one exception in Brooklyn.
1. Tsukimi (East Village)
228 East 10th Street, New York, NY 10003
Good for: A quiet meal for any occasion — dates, business dinners or catch-ups with friends
Not so good for: A big group. Reservations require payment and non-refundable. You only can reschedule at 72 hours’ notice.
FYI: One Michelin star
Before the pandemic forced NYC restaurants to shut, my best friend – an intellectual property lawyer – and I used to treat ourselves once a month at a Japanese restaurant. The idea was to get away from our spouses’ food restrictions and indulge ourselves in our native cuisine. She has an American vegetarian husband, while my British husband finds some Japanese dishes “cold and slimy”.
After a three-year hiatus, we decided to revive the tradition. Our first choice was Tsukimi, a 12-seat kaiseki joint named after the Japanese “moon viewing” custom where people gather under the moon to honour seasonal food and sake.
The tasting menu ($265) started with a trio of small bites of Wagyu tartare, unagi (freshwater eel) with crispy sesame rice crackers and karasumi (dried mullet roe) croquette. Executive chef Takanori Akiyama, who was born into a family of sushi chefs in Japan and has worked in New York’s restaurant industry since 1995, gives Japanese food a contemporary twist. His signature dish is a layer of caviar, uni and egg over a small bed of sushi rice — a mini-bowl that gives you the sensation of sushi and chawanmushi (savoury steamed custard) topped by delicacies in one shot.
Dishes are presented like jewellery on tableware that is rotated seasonally. The counter setting keeps intimate conversation very private – a huge plus in a city where, in most restaurants, you can barely hear yourself think.
Ending with a matcha expertly whipped on the spot, our two-and-a-half-hour supper is over. My friend remarked on how fun it is to eat out and share a good meal with a good friend; I had to agree. An estimated 4,500 restaurants permanently closed their doors due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. I am glad that Tsukimi was not one of them. Open Weds–Sun (seatings at 5pm and 8pm)
2. Yopparai Ronin (Lower East Side)
69 Clinton Street, New York, NY 10002
Good for: Attentive service
Not so good for: Vegetarians. The speciality here is yakitori
FYI: A menu consisting of an appetiser, nine yakitori skewers, rice and dessert is $110. A lighter menu of five skewers is $60. The restaurant’s sibling, Yopparai, which offers izakaya fare (Japanese tapas) à la carte, is a few doors down
Yopparai Ronin is more of an experience than a restaurant. Once you walk into the intimate space with its old-style Japanese furniture and tatami mats, you totally forget that you are in the heart of the Lower East Side.
Grilled skewers are served one by one at a perfect tempo, reminiscent of a style of service you might find in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Wagyu steak from Miyazaki prefecture is a worthwhile addition to the omakase menu (an extra $30). It tastes more like beef sashimi as it melts in your mouth.
I have to admit this is not a typical yakitori restaurant. It’s rather a virtual trip to Japan that comes with meticulously prepared yakitori. If you’d prefer a lively, quintessential yakitori-bar atmosphere, try Torishin (362 West 53rd Street, New York, NY 10002). Tues–Sat, 6pm–10pm
3. Nakamura (Lower East Side)
172 Delancey Street, New York, NY 10002
Good for: A quick slurp
Not so good for: A big group. This place has fewer than 20 seats
FYI: It isn’t located at the prettiest part of Manhattan
Tonkotsu is the classic style of ramen found in New York City. While its thick, pork-bone broth is irresistibly tasty, this ramen from Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island, is still foreign to me – I grew up eating Tokyo-style soy flavour.
Instead, chef Shigetoshi “Jack” Nakamura serves a kind of ramen I used to eat in a local eatery. His chicken-based stock is light but complex and satisfying. After a big success with his first ramen shop in Japan at the age of 22, he moved to New York and partnered with Sun Noodle (a top ramen- noodle maker in the US) to open Ramen Lab. He later launched his own restaurant, Nakamura, at this location near Williamsburg Bridge.
All you need for a freezing evening in NYC is a big bowl of ramen (from $18) with a sizzling plate of gyoza. They keep you warm for the rest of the evening. If you would like tonkotsu instead, try Ippudo – the global ramen chain has three locations in Manhattan. Mon–Thurs, noon–9pm;
4. Hakata TonTon (Koreatown)
35 West 35th Street, New York, NY 10001
Good for: A gathering for a group of friends or family
Not so good for: A light meal
FYI: Don’t give up when the online system says all reservations are full – the restaurant always keeps some tables available for walk-ins. Make sure you get there hungry
Hakata TonTon, which introduced motsu nabe (intestine hotpot) and tonsoku (pigs’ feet) to New Yorkers in 2008, closed its doors in 2020. In 2022, it reopened in Koreatown. The new location is a seven-minute walk from Penn Station, and has become a very popular destination with Japanese and Asian foodies who are looking for good hotpots (from $38).
While you mustn’t leave without trying Hakata TonTon’s specialities, labelling it a hotpot joint doesn’t capture the depth of its culinary endeavours. It serves a wide variety of Japanese soul foods such as gyoza, okonomiyaki (savoury pancake), and karaage (Japanese fried chicken). The Chinese dishes, especially the mabo tofu, are worth trying too, as head chef Koji Hagihara was the right-hand man of one of the chefs in the Chinese cooking category on Japan’s culinary TV show Iron Chef.
The desserts, which include a Japanese-style, Earl Grey-flavour baked cheesecake, are worth saving room for. Sun–Thurs, 5pm–9.45pm; Fri–Sat, 5pm–10.15pm
5. My Coffee and Cream
309 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211
Good for: Relaxed atmosphere with Japanese-style tea and ice cream. It also offers Japanese-style toasts and pastries
Not so good for: Manhattanites
FYI: A sibling café called As You Like is five minutes away by foot. Both are co-owned by Yuji Haraguchi, an evangelist of Japanese fish culture in New York. He runs a much-loved fish shop, Osakana, and a restaurant (Okonomi + Yuji Ramen), which serves Japanese-style breakfast during the day and seafood-based ramen in the evening.
I have focused on Manhattan so far, as most tourists and business travellers tend to eat in the most centrally located borough. But it’s very hard to find good cafés where you can relax.
Just three stops away from Manhattan, you will find this cute little café where you feel at home as soon as you walk in. “I was always confident that I could run a comfortable café,” said co-owner Mai Bakel. As a café otaku (obsessive), she visited hundreds of them in Japan and abroad before opening two places last year in East Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
This branch serves coffee as well as Japanese teas, matcha and hojicha (roasted tea) imported from Shizuoka prefecture, the most famous tea region in Japan. Hojicha with kuromitsu (sugar syrup known as “black honey” in Japanese), a rare combination to find in the city, is a favourite with customers.
Americans young and old, Bakel told me, seem to love ice cream. She offers three Japanese flavours, matcha, hojicha and yuzu (Japanese citrus), which are exclusively produced for the café by an ice-cream shop in neighbouring Greenpoint. If you feel peckish, try the sweet red adzuki beans and butter on milk-bread toast ($7) — a common western-style dish in Japan that you can eat as a breakfast or a dessert. Sun–Thurs 8am–7pm; Friday, 8am–9pm; Sat, 9am–9pm
6. Kosaka (West Village)
220 West 13th Street, New York, NY 10011
Good for: Formal dinner
Not so good for: A casual gathering with loud conversation
FYI: Omakase at the table costs $225 ($250 at the counter). One Michelin star. Open Tues–Sat, 5pm–11pm
7. Juku (Chinatown)
32 Mulberry Street, New York, NY 10013
Good for: Affordable omakase
Not so good for: The Chinatown location is a little walk from any subway stations
FYI: The omakase menu (served upstairs) starts at $180. On the ground floor, the restaurant recently started offering a French-American menu featuring Japanese ingredients for four courses at $89, or you can order à la carte. Open Tues–Weds, 6pm–midnight; Thurs–Sat, 5pm–midnight
Over the past year or so, the average price of an omakase dinner (a selection of dishes chosen by the chef) in NYC has shot up from $350 to about $500. Needless to say, the hefty price tag doesn’t include sake and tips. The city still has world-class sushi restaurants such as Sushi Noz (181 East 78th Street) and Noda (37 West 20th Street), but I can no longer afford to eat at these places without breaking the bank.
Instead, Kosaka and Juku have become my go-tos. Both offer good omakase under $250 but in very different ways. Kosaka is an elegant restaurant with soft jazz music whose atmosphere resembles an upscale hotel lounge. While chef Yoshihiko Kousaka prepares classic sushi with a modern twist (on my visit, scallops were served with a yuzu foam), waiting staff in dark suits (who somehow reminded me of Korean boy-band members) meticulously clean and set the counter for you after each dish.
Kosaka is the kind of spot you might visit to impress a potential business partner or a date. Juku, on the other hand, is more where you go to to chat to the friendly chef as he prepares your omakase feast. Kazuo “Sushi Boss” Yoshida is trying to provide the same quality that you’ll find at $500-plus sushi restaurants with his $180 omakase. A trip to this hidden gem on a Chinatown backstreet makes you feel like a real New Yorker. Don’t forget to visit Straylight, a speakeasy beneath the restaurant, for a post-prandial cocktail.
If I feel a sudden urge to have raw fish during the day, I rush to MakiMaki (1369 6th Avenue) for lunch. It’s three minutes away from Nikkei’s office in midtown Manhattan. A handroll sushi made with fresh ingredients costs from $5 per piece.
8. Katsu Hama (Midtown)
11 East 47th Street, New York, NY 10017
Good for: Price. The set menu is under $30
Not so good for: The health-conscious diner – most of the foods are deep-fried
FYI: Open from 11.30am to 9pm every day, so you can have lunch and dinner, and no reservation is necessary
If you live on the other side of the pond, you might think that katsu means a Japanese-style curry. You are wrong. Katsu is a deep-fried pork cutlet. The meat should be thick and juicy, while the breadcrumbs on the outside are golden and crispy. The dish usually comes with a mountain of thinly-sliced crunchy cabbage.
While this no-frills joint serves other Japanese dishes, don’t miss its traditional-style katsu. The katsu set, including a bowl of rice and miso soup, is around $25; all you need to add is a bit of brown sauce and sharp yellow mustard. It’s a steal in New York, where the average price of a martini is $25. If you still think katsu is curry, you can find katsu curry here too.
Where do you go in New York for Japanese food? Tell us in the comments. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter
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