Mark Garcia & Evan Zagha
Getting ready to attend our first grand opening had us thinking, what makes a great omakase? If we were opening our own omakase what would we focus on? We brainstormed out loud: well-seasoned rice served at the right temperature, high quality sourcing of not just the fish but of all ingredients used, innovative bites that combine those top quality ingredients, friendly and efficient service, a sleek and exciting environment in which to enjoy the meal, and a chef who is eager to display the love of their craft through skillful knife work, presentation, attention to detail, and amiable (sometimes educational) conversation.
Kissaki, Chef Mark Garcia’s new omakase experience in NoHo, is starting off on an excellent foot in all of these areas with great promise for continued development and success. If the name Mark Garcia sounds familiar, you may know him from his time as head chef at the revered omakase restaurant Gaijin in Astoria. No longer a gaijin or “outsider” to the ever-expanding Manhattan omakase scene, Chef Mark is pairing past favorites with new creations to cement himself and his team in what we believe to be one of the top contemporary omakase spots in the city.
So what sets Kissaki apart from the growing list of omakase-must-tries? The meal stands out right off the bat with Chef Evan Zagha’s presentation of fresh and harmonious kaiseki dishes. Kaiseki meals are deeply rooted in Japanese culinary tradition and serve to showcase seasonal ingredients at the pinnacle of their freshness in a simple yet artistic manner. Difficult to master, Chef Zagha impresses with thoughtful and delicious pairings such as kombu-cured Kanpachi with fuyu puree and chrysanthemum oil, traditional chawanmushi with toro tartare and simmered shiitake, and onion-braised pork belly over spinach gomae, apple puree, and sesame paste. Chef Zagha’s passion and talent are not only showcased beautifully in his dishes but also in his ability to connect with his diners. By playing with vibrant colors, offering whiffs of his just-made sesame paste, and going into illuminating detail about his fresh and exciting ingredients, Chef Zagha succeeds in awakening the senses and leads his diners gracefully into the next portion of the omakase. Sushi time!
Rice sets the foundation for any omakase and is very telling of a chef’s technique and style. Chef Mark sources some of the best rice money can buy: premium, rare Koshihikari rice from Japan. The soil in which this rice is cultivated is prepared using four times the standard cost and manpower as typical white rice; the polishing process takes a significant three times longer making this grain expensive but worth it to distinguish one’s sushi further. The difference in texture was evident—you can practically feel each grain falling apart in the mouth with a slightly tougher exterior that made for a satisfying chew. Chef Mark also uses our favorite Edomae style seasoning akazu (red vinegar made from sake lees) with sea salt, notably omitting any sugar, letting the natural sweet nuttiness from the rice and the flavors from the fish really shine through. And, much to our delight, the temperature of the rice was slightly warm.
Chef Mark’s progression of nigiri is a great marriage of traditional meets contemporary. Traditional techniques are used to create unexpected flavor and texture combinations that keep diners on the edge of their seats wondering what will come next. Not to worry, sushi purists, there are still a number of nigiri standards such as kanpachi (aged 8 days) dressed with plum shoyu, melt-in-your-mouth kinmedai with seared skin accompanied by grated apple for a delicious sweet & smoky effect, aged shima aji with ginger and chive, and hotate (scallop) micro-sliced to perfection so fresh it was still moving! Some of our personal favorites included trigger fish topped with its own liver, sesame seeds, and red shiso leaf, akami tuna with buttery shiitake mushroom and a crunchy toasted almond surprise, and a very special treat to round out the meal—hadate uni from Hokkaido, sold by the gram for the true uni lovers. We were impressed and pleased with the variety of fish served, introducing us to some pieces we’d never had before such as Japanese roughscale sole, ishi-dai (knifejaw), and the highly anticipated shirako (cod milt). Continuing with the theme of Chef Zagha’s kaiseki dishes, Chef Mark serves neta that is in season at its peak freshness. A special shout out is also warranted to some of the best ginger we have ever had—it’s infused with yuzu and had our gracious waiter refilling our ginger dishes over and over again.
The service on opening night was definitely better than expected for a brand new restaurant. Not quite yet a well-oiled machine, there were a few inconsistencies here and there but nothing we believe won’t be ironed out with a little more time. The bright and bubbly hostess made us feel right at home from the minute we walked in the door. Drops of food were wiped away lightning fast. The manager checked in every so often to make sure we had everything we needed and were satisfied. The chefs themselves were entertaining, enlightening, and endearing. The pacing of the meal was a bit on the slow side, but we didn’t mind because we were having such a nice time.
We think that Kissaki offers one of the best values currently on the market in terms of the amount of high quality food you receive compared to the price you’re paying. If you’re still hungry after the omakase you’re welcome to order additional pieces—we only added the hadate uni gunkan for each of us because we thought we’d be crazy not to. But we were definitely full after the omakase and especially satisfied after Chef Zagha’s caramelized brioche dessert with scoops of ginger and black sesame ice cream topped with truffle. We’ve paid double the price for omakase and have been known to get pizza afterwards. Let’s just say we left with very happy bellies.
The layout at Kissaki is long and slightly narrow, lending itself perfectly to the beautiful 16 seat wooden sushi bar. Opening up more towards the back, there are a few tables with additional seats for a la carte ordering. There were still some finishing touches that could be made to the décor although we loved the red oak accents against the ocean blue wallpaper. They would benefit from some refinement along the back wall to improve the flow and aesthetic of what diners see when they look past the action in front of them. As far as the cocktail bar goes… we can’t wait to see what they do with this area and are looking forward to returning for some of Chef’s signature cocktails.
For not yet having their liquor license and full cocktail bar in place, Kissaki - Was - Poppin’! As soon as we arrived there was an effervescent vibe that maintained throughout the night. Sometimes people write to us saying they’re nervous to try omakase because they picture it being an uptight experience with rules that they’re not sure how to follow. If that sounds like you, first check out our What Is Omakase page, and second, head over to Kissaki because in one word, it is FUN. The eclectic and open vibe makes it hard not to make friends with everyone around you as you all share in the same exciting culinary experience. We even jokingly conspired with the couple next to us at one point to steal the box of hadate uni and make a run for it! Chef Mark makes sure you’re well fed but he also makes sure you’re having a good laugh and an overall great time.
In an era where we can often feel so disconnected from each other with our heads always in our phones, Kissaki offers a reprieve from the outside world both in the enjoyment of deliciously innovative omakase, and the opportunity to connect with chefs and fellow diners, leaving you with an overall greater appreciation for the art of omakase.