Jōji, Manhattan’s newest Omakase restaurant has just opened beneath One Vanderbilt, midtown’s tallest tower. This is the hottest new place for a 22-course Omakase dinner (yes, 22 pieces) run by Sushi impresario Chef George Ruan, formerly of Masa. Chef George creates bespoke Omakase experiences with only the finest and freshest ingredients (at least half flown in from Japan, twice a week), paired with premium sake and fine wines and whiskies.
“I have always dreamed of having the opportunity to bring to life a truly unique sushi-based concept that combines elements of the traditional, while also being daring and unexpected,” says Chef George.
In partnership with Michelin-Starred Chef Daniel Boulud and SL Green Realty Corp., Jōji, at $375 per person (before beverages and tax) is giving Masa ($950 before beverages and tax) a run for its money. Everything about Jōji is A+ except finding the place. We received directions from both an employee at Grand Central’s information booth and a concierge at One Vanderbilt, but still got lost, twice. Eventually, we found it.
Walking towards Jōji, suddenly you’re on a winding path through a serene Japanese Zen garden complete with rocks and trees. This leads to the hidden restaurant.
Immediately, on entering Jōji’s sleek cozy space, the gently curved Japanese-inspired design by Shinichiro Ogata, founder of Simplicity Design, gave me a sense of peace. The blond wood counter had 10 comfortable high-backed chairs, each with its own built-in shelf for personal items. The lighting was recessed, the music, a mix of Rap and Hip-Hop playing in the background, and Chef George was there to greet us.
Chef George, like many NYC Omakase chefs, was born in China. He was raised in New York and started his career at age 16 as a server at Masa. “Chef Masa was like a father figure to me,” he explained. Just one year later, George had graduated to chef and remained at Masa for 16 years.
While Jōji has been open less than a month, one customer has already returned eight times, another three times, and the night I was there, a man who had brought his brother the first time, was on his second visit with his girlfriend. While the menu changes seasonally, for return customers, Chef George changes some courses so there are always new surprises, no matter how many visits.
There are five chefs for the ten customers as well as Jun, a sake/wine/ whiskey sommelier who explains the flavors and tastes of sake the way other sommeliers explain a fine wine. For starters, Jun suggested the Hakurakusei sake, served cold in a wine glass (not hot, as so many Americans drink it). It was the best sake I’d ever tasted, and I’ve been to Japan —twice. The sake had a very distinctive taste. Jun said to swirl it, the way one would wine. That brought out the heady aroma. I felt as though I were drinking a very fine wine – and it was. We would later taste three other sakes, each unique, and each served in a different sized wine glass, just like fine wine.
Chef George’s Omakase is a 22-course meal served over three hours with two seatings per night. The chef is 41, though he looks much younger. What is most distinctive about him is his magical hands which roll, smooth and caress the ingredients with love, especially the rice which, he explained, is the most important part of each course. He also served the rice warm, which I loved.
The first appetizer was Buri, a wild-caught yellowtail with daikon and ponzu. I reached for my chopsticks, but Chef said, “Better to use your hands.” The Buri was fresh, not chewy. It happily slid down my throat like honey, and for all the other courses, I also used my hands. (They brought us little folded paper napkins with which to wipe our hands, and as soon as we used the napkin, they whisked it away and brought a new one.)
Toro Cucumber, was served on a round glass plate with shiso and fresh wasabi. Chef George grated the wasabi with a sharkskin grater, telling me that 99% of Japanese restaurants do not use real wasabi.
Chef George’s favorite dish followed: Grilled kinki fish served with baby cauliflower. Besides his mastery of food, Chef George has a great sense of humor. When he told me it was called kinki, I said “Kinky with a y, like kinky?” He laughed, “Very kinky but it’s spelled kinki.”
There was fish consume of Gobi bass from South America, striped Jack fish. Each course was seasoned to perfection, and the flavors popped in my mouth. There was Akami (lean tuna), and Japanese sea perch. For some courses, after Chef George sliced the fish to perfection, one of the other chefs would sear it with a hot knife. Watching Chef George and his fellow chefs, all just a few feet away, was like watching a perfectly choreographed ballet.
my favorite was Amadai Caviar. We’re not talking about a pinch-of-salt-sized portion of caviar – there was more than a giant tablespoon over fried Japanese tile fish. The combination of caviar and crunchy fish was sheer perfection. “What does this restaurant mean to you?” I asked. Chef George said, “It’s like a stage for me. At Masa, it was always his stage.”
We ate sea perch and Amaebi, a tiny peeled and raw shrimp from Okida, Japan, which Chef said was sweet. “Why is it sweet?” He smiled and replied, “Wait till you taste it.” It was the best shrimp I’ve ever tasted (and probably the first time I’ve ever had it raw), sweet and perfect. And then he explained it was actually 22 different tiny shrimps.
Each course was served on a different plate or bowl, all beautiful, and all making every course even more special. We were served golden eye snapper, deep-sea perch, and scallop from Okida, Japan. “What is this,” I asked. He laughed and said, “Cocaine.” This chef is not only a brilliant creator, but also has a wonderful sense of humor. I didn’t expect the raw shrimp to be anything but chewy, but it was tender and another melt-in my-mouth course.
Jun, the sommelier came by and served a different sake in a huge wine glass (Jōji offers 50 different sakes). The courses kept coming. Aji and Uni (sea urchin with caviar). Each time a new piece of sushi arrived, I’d ask Chef, “One bite or two?” And he’d answer, according to the size of the sushi. For the toro salmon hand roll, he said, “three bites.”
When the Maitake arrived, he said it was “Hen of the Wood.” Then he laughed and said, “Chicken of the Woods, a little joke.” After about the sixteenth course I asked, “Could you eat all this?” And he said, “Of course, maybe twice,” and laughed. Finally, the dessert: Japanese Musk Melon with shiso flour and yuzu, followed by hot soba buckwheat tea.
“So, what makes you different?” I asked. He said, “We’re the younger generation.” I think it’s more than that: it’s Chef George’s spirit, mastery, sense of humor, and indomitable passion.
Jōji is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday with two seatings each night. For more information visit jojiny.com. In addition to Jōji, SL Green, Chef Daniel, and Chef George have opened Jōji Box, a separate to-go sushi counter in a storefront adjacent to the restaurant. Jōji is already almost impossible to book, so plan ahead. You do not want to miss this extraordinary unique experience.