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Neta: Ex Masa and Bar Masa Head Chefs Open an Understated Stunner in the West Village

For accompanying photographs, please see http://www.girleatscity.com/2012/04/n...

In Mexican Spanish slang, "neta" means roughly "the real thing". In Japanese, "neta" means roughly "the good stuff that comes with the shari". In multicultural New York, Neta restaurant is both. This newcomer, opened by ex-Masa and Bar Masa head chefs Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau, is legit. It appears (on the basis of my one meal) to serve some of the best sushi this city currently has to offer -- and some seriously good neta to go with it.

At a recent meal a few weeks after opening, the menu was focused: It offers sushi -- omakase, sashimi, nigiri or rolls -- and small plates. Since I had a ticking time bomb strapped tightly to my chest (a.k.a. an infant), we had to reluctantly pass on the omakase. But we did order a variety of small plates, nigiri, sashimi and rolls.

The small plates blew us away. I know there are some who will complain about the portion sizes being disproportionate to the prices, but there is no arguing with the quality of the ingredients. Everything was pristinely fresh and prepared with care.

A small plate of dungeness crab with cucumber, wild parsley, dashi vinaigrette included sweet, meaty, perfectly picked crab. The chefs behind the counter tossed this with just the right proportion of fragrant, juicy cucumber; mild, tender parsley; and a nicely understated vinaigrette.

The grilled whole scallop with uni, garlic soy butter and lime (pictured above) might've been a tad pricey at $18 a pop, but whatever twinge of guilt I had at the price tag dissipated when I tried the gorgeous combination of tender, still-warm scallop with savory-sweet, cool uni and lime.

A likable, homey dish of seasonal rice with crispy baby icefish and salted mizuna greens was similar to the grilled sardine rice cakes we had at Naoe in Miami. I think the crispy baby icefish may also be known as niboshi or dried baby sardines. They added a subtle, non-fishy umami richness to the rice that even my dining companion, who is not ordinarily a fan of sardines or other oily fish, enjoyed.

I had five types of sashimi: akami (lean tuna), suji (grilled toro sinew), kanpachi (yellowtail), sawara (Spanish mackerel) and unagi (eel). Since convention varies from place to place, it's worth noting that Neta serves two pieces of sashimi per order, cut to the proper (not overly large) size. Each piece I tried was well cut and tender. The suji, kanpachi and sawara were served with delicate, barely there slivers of young ginger. Unagi was nicely seasoned and rich, without being overly fatty. Suji, which I'd never tried before, was firm, but not at all stringy or tough, textures I usually associate with sinew. I'm not sure I was overly excited by this preparation, since blindfolded, I probably couldn't distinguish it from a piece of ordinary tuna steak, grilled until well done, but the fish was very fresh.

My favorite, though, was my piece of uni nigiri. The uni was fresh from San Diego, interestingly, not its better known sea urchin producing neighbor, Santa Barbara. It's nearing the end of uni season, but this stuff was very good, intensely flavored and briny with just a hint of sweetness. The sushi rice was excellent, actually some of the best I've had in the city and certainly on par with what I've had at Yasuda. It was perfectly seasoned to my taste with detectable levels of salt and vinegar, but not sugar. (I think some chefs prefer a blander preparation, but for me, the salt helps highlight flavors in the neta.

)

My dining companion ordered a few rolls: the tuna avocado, spicy tuna and kanpachi with scallion. I only tried a piece of the tuna avocado roll and although I wasn't overly impressed, it was competent. The rice was excellent, there was a good ratio of rice to tuna and avocado, tuna was fair and avocado was ripe.

The Little One was heckling to go home at this point, so we skipped dessert (a grapefruit granita). We did manage to toss back glasses of Barbolini Lambrusco (Emilia Romagna, Italy) and a carafe of Densho Yamahai Fukushima Junmai, along with our food, though. The Lambrusco actually went well with our small plates, especially the salty, rich grilled scallop. The junmai was very, very good, a sweet, very fragrant, floral sake that I would've liked to've had much more of had the Little One not been so close to having his own third or fourth dinner.

Overall, we were deeply impressed with the food at this Village newcomer and the baby friendly staff at our 5:45 p.m. dinner. We intend to be back frequently -- at least until it starts getting mobbed by fans... as it ought to be.

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  1. Icefish usually means "shirasu" which are tiny whitefish, not silvery like niboshi... "Neta" just means "item" or "sushi item" or it can be reversed as "tane". They don't mean good stuff, though maybe your were waxing in hyperbole...It sounds like you had a great time, but I'm not sure you've qualified your statement that this is one of the best sushi destinations in the city. Suji is usually a stomach stuffer in a roll at the end of a meal and not a featured item. It's often used for making fish stock. This is the type of item that is usually a freebie thrown in gratis. Sorry, just saying.

    18 Replies
    1. re: Silverjay

      No apologies, I appreciate the background info on shirasu v. niboshi and suji. I'd never seen suji on a menu, before.

      According to the restaurant website, "neta" means "the fresh ingredients that go with sushi rice" or something like that. Do you think that's accurate? I don't know if any of us speak Japanese as a first language, so mostly, we (or I) just deal in translations. To me, "neta" IS the good stuff. So it's just my own take, not exactly hyperbole.

      I think Neta is as good as 15 East, Kuruma and Yasuda, better than Bar Masa, Kanoyama and others of that tier. I still haven't been to Masa. Sadly!

      1. re: michelleats

        Shirasu Mizuna Chahan looks pretty good.

        1. re: Ricky

          Yes--it's simple and yet remarkably delicious. I need to look into how to make this at home. The somewhat similar version I had at Naoe had been shaped into a cake and then griddled or grilled, whereas this was loose rice that the chefs sauteed in a wok, briefly, before serving. I loved the slightly toasty notes in Naoe's version, but Neta's was really, really good, too, especially with the salty mizuna.

          1. re: michelleats

            .."shaped into a cake and then griddled or grilled"...Sounds like yaki-onigiri. Adding shirasu is not uncommon. The mizuna is a nice touch too.

        2. re: michelleats

          My Japanese is pretty good and their translation is accurate as far as what I was taught.........I'm keen to hear how their nigiri sushi compares to these places like 15 East as your first foray was focused on the sashimi and small plates. It's pretty bold to comapare to those others, but the chefs certainly have impressive resumes....I mean, I guess. I've never been to Masa either.

          1. re: Silverjay

            >>My Japanese is pretty good

            Oh, I'm sure! By "I don't know if any of us speak Japanese as a first language", I was actually thinking of Chefs Kim and Lau, whoever wrote the edit for the website, and me -- though actually, I probably shouldn't make assumptions based on the chefs' surname.

            I look forward to trying more of the nigiri, too! Do you ever write up your experiences when you eat out? I'd love to hear what you think of Neta (and other places) if you go.

            1. re: michelleats

              Yep, sure I do...Yeah, will have to make it to Neta.

          2. re: michelleats

            I know I should not judge a place before I try it. But this sounds like a reinvention
            of Yuba. I believe these are the same 2 ex-Masa guys who opened Yuba on E.9th St.
            The food was not all that great. Also, and forgive me for my prejudice, I only respect sushi
            from Japanese trained "real"sushi chefs. There is something to 7 years of learning and knowledge. I recommend the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi ( playing at IFC), they get the point across. However, that being said. I will try Neta and report back, since I usually like Michelleats taste in restaurants.

            1. re: foodwhisperer

              If you look at Lau's thread on Yuba (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/778256), the chefs are different.

              1. re: Cheeryvisage

                Thanks for Lau's thread, Cheery. In any case, I read somewhere,that both of the chefs from Yuba were from Masa. Regardless, it is interesting that the "great" Masa, has so many non- Japanese chefs there. So Neta reminds me of Yuba in that regard. But I will try Neta and report back.

              2. re: foodwhisperer

                Gosh, I'm flattered you usually like my taste. I usually like yours, too!

                I thought of Yuba, as well, but the chefs are not the same. Chefs George Ruan and Jack Wei opened Yuba. (http://www.girleatscity.com/2011/07/y...) Chefs Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau opened Neta. Frankly, Neta is much better for sushi, although I did go to Yuba the day that Chef Ruan left, I think. He headed up the sushi side of operations, there.

                As for being Japanese trained, do you mean trained by a Japanese sushi chef? If so, all of these chefs fit the bill, since they trained at Masa, presumably under Takayama.

                Please do try Neta and report back. I'd love to hear what you think.

                1. re: michelleats

                  As far as training goes, I am talking about traditional 7 years of strict training under a Japanese sushi Master. An example of a chef trained this way is the chef at 15 East.

                  1. re: foodwhisperer

                    I don't know what it takes to be head chef at Masa (or even Bar Masa), but I'm guessing it's no cake walk. These guys know what they're doing.

                    1. re: michelleats

                      Bar Masa's food was mediocre at best the one time i went there...a total tourist trap...

                      1. re: Simon

                        I agree. Bar Masa wasn't very good the two times I tried it, either. But by reputation Masa really is all that. That's why Bar Masa was hiding out in parentheses.

                2. re: foodwhisperer

                  >I know I should not judge a place before I try it.

                  That's my takeaway from your post.

                  1. re: squid kun

                    I keep trying to try it. I showed up there 3 times already. The place is booked solid all the time. They told me they are 10 days in advance booked.

                    1. re: foodwhisperer

                      Word must get out, fast. (I'm happy for them!) They're on Open Table if you want to reserve in advance.

            2. "ex-Masa" ... impressive.
              did any offering capture you .... "neba neba" or "tsuru tsuru" - like?

              2 Replies
              1. re: TheDescendedLefticleOfAramis

                I'm envisioning myself running away from a giant, oozy, slime monster. :) No, nothing neba neba or tsuru tsuru captured me! Actually, I don't remember seeing anything in the menu that would fit either of these descriptions. Here's the menu posted on their website, which I'm pretty sure is the same one handed to me at the restaurant: http://www.netanyc.com/neta/menu/ .

                1. re: michelleats

                  "I don't remember seeing anything in the menu that would fit either of these descriptions" …
                  so true, so true.

              2. I finally was able to get in to Neta. The sushi bar is long, and at the end it turns into a communal bar with seats on both sides of it. The fish case, the usual glass refrigerated kind, did not show much fish. The fish was covered with paper or wrapped in saran. Except for a few odd pieces of tuna. It was pretty dark also, and not very appetizing. One sushi chef ( the one closest to me) seemed very skilled. I watched his hand motions while he made sushi and it mimicked the best sushi chefs. Not only was he very good, he was friendly too. He was also helpful to the not very skilled fellow making rolls, beside him. The kitchen staff were numerous. All men. Actually, there may have been too many on the payroll for the restaurant to make their numbers. Perhaps some were interns. I counted 10 -12 kitchen employees. The sushi I looked at the menu, and decided it was best to get the more expensive omikase ($135) there was also a $95 omakase, I was told there were 11 courses.
                My first course: well that was my Asahi" Super dry" rice beer. which was excellent and was not part of the 11 courses. I might add every dish I had on the omakase was available on the a la carte menu. Also, the menu differed from the one on menu pages, in price and in number of items available. Much more fish listed on menu pages.
                -My real first course: Chu Toro Tartare with Caviar and 2 small pieces of grilled white bread. If this dish was ordered a la carte it cost $48. It was a 2 bite dish. It tasted delicious. It was described as toro tartare, seemed like chu toro. A bit expensive for the size.
                -2nd course: Dungeness Crab with cucumber in a dashi vinaigrette.This was a good dish. The taste of the crab was not overpowered by the other ingredients. size was good size for a tasting menu.
                -3rd course: Grilled Boston Sea Scallop in shell ,with San Diego uni, garlic soy butter and lime. I think they put some yuzu grated yuzu peel also. This was my favorite dish of the meal. Warm scallop, cool uni. very delicious.
                4th:Crispy Fugu (blowfish tempura). It was not really fugu, it was local blowfish. I do not understand why they left a big bone in the middle. This was not by accident. They made me aware of the big center bone. It was one small piece, that could have been eaten in one bite. But with the bone, you had to carefully take several bites. That dish tasted good, the fish fresh, not too greasy. But the bone , well I still don't get it. I doubt if it added flavor to the dish.
                5th: Uni Risotto. I think on the a la carte menu they called it Porridge with uni. It was warm creamy risotto with chilled uni. It was OK ( i love uni), but overrall was a bit bland. A good stomach filler though as the dishes were pretty small , in general. I had expected the rice dish last. But I didnt expect sushi dishes as my next 5 courses. That was a let down, only because I anticipated possibly one sushi course, and the rest "kaiseki' style, or little dishes like Soto makes.
                6th Course: A tiny handroll of crispy crab ( kani tempura roll), this was my favorite of the sushi. It came with a piece of Akami tuna sushi. The tuna was equivalent of your neigborhood sushi bar. It was not a high quality piece of tuna. I don't know if it was Blue Fin or Ahi tuna, I suspect it was not Bluefin. It tasted fine, it was stored correctly ,but was an insulting piece of fish for a $135 omakase. They say the fish is local , but it is not yet tuna season here in the Northeast.
                7th course: 2 pieces of sushi, Chu toro, and a piece of sawara ( spanish mackerel) with some toasty panko on top .
                6th: 2 pieces of sushi, Kanpachi (baby yellowtail) garnished with spicy potato shreds, and a piece of salmon (plain ol' salmon) with a dab of some kind of mustard on it. These pieces were too warm.
                7th course: San Diego uni sushi, and a piece of suji sushi ( as michelleats describes it as a well done piece of tuna steak, i agree with that assessment) it tasted good, but nothing special. The uni was nicely chilled, and delicious.
                8th course: was negi toro cut roll. 4 pieces. Tasted good. Seaweed wrapper was crisp as it was on all of the rolls. Not a very imaginative dish for an expensive, highly rated omakase.
                -9th course: Unagi and cucumber, cut roll, (2 pieces) taste was good. not much eel in it. small amount of sweet eel sauce.
                10th course{ shiso with ume sushi. good thing to end with
                11th course: grapefruit gelee ( it had some chunks of grapefruit in it, not just ice)
                I'm not sure if my review sounds good or bad. I guess there was good and bad in it. The dishes in general were not very creative or exciting. The rice at dishes at Kyo Ya, Brushstroke, Robataya were much better than this. The tartare dishes are far more tasty at Soto.
                The sushi rice was very good. The seaweed wrapper on the rolls was crisp and good. The sushi was not high quality fish, but the fish was not bad. The fish was kept too warm though, should be cooler. It was probably 100F. The choice of fish in the omakase were very common fish. Nothing like shima aji, or tuna kama, or even engawa. Tuna, salmon, fluke, spanish mackerel, kanpachi eel,that was it. Admittedly, Monday is not a good night for sushi. But I expected to be blown away by the food. I was not blown away. 15 East is far superior for sushi. For small plates Soto, Brooklyn Fare, Kyo Ya, Sakagura, not Neta. I left out that the service was excellent.

                6 Replies
                1. re: foodwhisperer

                  You paid 135 and they served you eel avocado roll???!?!?!?!? That is absurd.

                  1. re: Ricky

                    eel cucumber roll, regular akami, toro and scallion roll, totally absurd

                  2. re: foodwhisperer

                    Thanks for the play by play of the omakase, foodwhisperer. Interesting read. I was hoping to try this once we're able to dine sans baby. I'm glad you were able to try the scallop and uni dish! It was my favorite, too, interesting for both the hot/cold contrast and the sweet/salty contrast.

                    I must say it surprises and dismays me to hear you had non fresh fish of any sort in your meal. Ours ordered a la carte was all varying degrees of good and I think it was also a Monday. (I don't think day of the week matters so much when much of the fish is sourced from far away.) Thinking back, the lean tuna sashimi was the least flavorful of the pieces I had, though.

                    Hmm... I'll try this place again as soon as I'm able and report back.

                    1. re: michelleats

                      Micheleats, try it again for sure. We agree on the scallop uni. I didnt say the fish was not fresh though. I said it was warmer in temperature than it shoudl be. It was fresh enough. Usually Monday is bad day for sushi, since the choice can be limited. The fish market is closed Sunday here and in Japan. The fish gets flown in, so the far part doesnt matter. Wed - Sat is when I usually like to eat sushi though. In any case, I was just disappointed in the choice of dishes for omakase, wasnt too creative or exotic. I look forward to hearing how it will be for you when you try it.

                      1. re: foodwhisperer

                        I've been thinking about your unfavorable comparison of Neta to Soto. You probably know how much I like Soto, but I just don't think the two are comparable, their styles are so different. Soto is really creative and unusual, you're right. Neta is homier, a bit more traditional and it executes this style of food extremely well. Comparing the two is a little like comparing WD-50 to maybe Craft. Neta isn't bad because it is not like Soto. It's different and I think equally good. (But I must go back... To verify... And I should do so many, may times just to be sure.... :)

                        1. re: foodwhisperer

                          The Adam Platt review below says most of the fish served at Neta are "local" to the USA.

                      1. re: michelleats

                        Solid tasting menu. Michelin Star worthy if they up their service game.

                        1. re: i8NYC

                          I don't think Neta is worthy of any Michelin Stars, although, Michelin lately amazes me , in regard to their star awarding. Neta to me is in the class of a Morimoto.

                          1. re: i8NYC

                            I'll be able to try it in two or three weeks, I think. I can't wait!

                            Excellent blog, by the way. (Am I allowed to link to it, CH mods? http://i8nyc.com/2012/03/15/first-loo...) Some pretty entertaining writing.

                          1. re: michelleats

                            Oops I didn't see your post , Michelleats, so i started a new thread on Neta review. Try Brushstroke sushi and Brushstroke.

                            1. re: foodwhisperer

                              I just read your thread: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/853023. I have the utmost respect your opinion, foodwhisperer, and always enjoy your anecdotes about your mother's cooking. But in this case, you seem to have some strong preconceived notions about the quality of the restaurant based on the ethnicity of the chefs. In all honesty, I find that to be off-putting in this day and age when it's generally accepted that one does not have to be X ethnicity to make X type of food well (i.e. Harold Dieterle at Kin Shop), especially if one has had the training. That, my own very good meal, and the fact that I've found Pete Wells to be a thoughtful reviewer in the past make me question your judgment in this case.

                              Of course I *haven't* tried Brushstroke, yet. (We ended up back at Wong, instead, since some 'Hounds advised that an infant would be unwelcome at Brushstroke on a Saturday night, even early.) But I very badly want to. Now I just have to figure out whether to try Neta again, first, or try Brushstroke.

                              I noticed you expressed interest in meeting other 'Hounds for dinner on another thread a while back. If you'd like to join me for either meal (early unfortunately), I'd welcome the company.

                              1. re: michelleats

                                Haven't been to Neta, so i can't weigh in specifically...but i don't think Dieterle/KinShop helps the argument: i like Kin Shop a lot, but i don't consider it even to be Thai food -- it's a NY chef's riff on Thai ingredients and the results are good...

                                fwiw, i've never had a Japanese meal cooked by non-Japanese chefs that came close to the better Japanese-run places...and i've never had a real Thai meal cooked by non-Thais that was better than mediocre...i'm not saying it can't be done: but i've never experienced it...

                                1. re: michelleats

                                  Michelle, i do accept chefs of different ethnicity cooking different cuisines. I used to love the Italian food an Argentinian chef cooked at Joe's. I even cook great italian food, and i'm not Italian. But as far as sushi goes, a real sushi chef trains for 7 years under a master. There is something to that. The Japanese have stuck to this system for many years. Even a Tempura chef in Japan must train the same way. It is an art form. So in regard to sushi, i stick with Japanese chefs. I recommend you see the film , Jiro dreams of sushi, it is a film that appreciates sushi. For cooked Japanese , kaiseki type dishes, I am slightly more lenient. The chef at Bklyn Fare for example, has learned from Japanese chefs and displays his knowledge in many of his dishes. Brushstroke has some non Japanese in the kitchen. But Brushstroke sushi ( in a separate area of the restaurant) the chef is Japanese and very knowledgable.
                                  On another note I'd love to meet you for dinner. Early is perfect. You can bring the infant, and go to Brushstroke with me. There is absolutely no problem bringing the infant. I am friendly with the management.

                                  1. re: foodwhisperer

                                    Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a really fascinating documentary, but what's the takeaway, here? I very much doubt any sushi chef in NYC has that kind of obsessive dedication to the craft, Japanese or otherwise.

                                    Dinner would be lovely. My email address is in my profile. Please email me when you get a chance and we'll make plans somewhere other than this thread!

                                    1. re: michelleats

                                      The chef at 15 East's master who has a sushi restaurant in Tokyo, is a very close friend of Jiro. Chef Shimizu-san at 15 East, is quite dedicated to perfection.
                                      I figured out the email profile thing :)