I am struggling to follow the hands of George Ruan. My eyes try to keep up as he moistens his fingers, scooping up warm grains of rice and applying personal pressure to them. A luminous slice of fish is placed on this earring. There is pinch, roll, flick of the wrist and flower. A few drops of the soy sauce are dispensed from a brush and a flawless piece of sushi is revealed in his palm as a coin that is pulled back my ear.
I watch Ruan perform this feat over and over again, for me and the other nine diners at his cedar counter, but still I can’t work out the trick. Maybe it’s the reason.
Ruan is the head chef of New York’s newest omakase restaurant, Jōji. He probably created it with the city’s largest office property owner SL Green and Daniel Boulud, the Michelin-starred Frenchman behind the Upper East Side’s Daniel Restaurant. Even more likely, it’s in Grand Central station.
Finding calm at the end of a frenetic railway requires a theatrical suspension of disbelief, I realise, as I pass through the afternoon commuters. But the approach to Jōji has been thoughtfully staged by Shinichiro Ogata’s Simple Design firm. Into a marble corner of the station is an entrance of rocks and plants that look like an overgrown bonsai arrangement. From a dark old appearance, a twisting corridor puts the noise of the station behind us before we reach the dining room, where a dark proscenium frames the glee of Ruan’s counter.
Half a dozen stage hands are hovering in the wings, sliding into their seats and offering drinks as Ruan arranges pieces of snapper on the mustard greens, brightened by ponzu vinaigrette into a perfect palate-cleansing dressing. This first act is followed by three pieces of fried flatfish on onion purée, piled with caviar and tiny pink shiso flowers. It’s very tasty, I think ironically, but the cod with tartare sauce is so good.
We get back on track with appetizer three (Japanese grouper in a shimmering umami broth) and then Ruan’s hands work on the first of what will be more than a dozen types of sushi. The striped fish disappears in one cool, hot, sweet, salty paste and I feel instantly ashamed of how little time it spent in my mouth compared to the care I had to make it. Soy-marinated tuna fin, sweet amaebi Shrimp and pale golden eye snapper. Then a solemn figure enters, step right, with a great sword. Soon, pieces of sea perch are being singed with his heated blade.
I’m not sure if the branding improves the taste, and the metallic smoke wafts away as Ruan starts slicing the Hokkaido scallops into poker chip-thin discs. Tangy with yuzu zest, they are the highlight of the meal so far. One jug of medium-fat tuna later, the sword comes out again, and so do the iPhones of my fellow diners. It’s shows, no doubt, but will another trick spoil the magic? A little, but that doesn’t miss the point: the team behind Jōji seems to understand that we’re here for a Broadway-level performance. Prices start at $375 per person for five appetizers and 15 pieces of sushi, competing with tickets to Hamilton.
“I don’t want it to be stuffy,” Ruan tells me. After watching him make a series of feather light cuts across the surface of one piece of fish, I ask him what their purpose is. To bring out the flavor? “To show the knife skills,” he said.
While Jōji nods to the ground in itself of Metro Tokyo isn’t pretending to be anywhere else but downtown Manhattan. Ruan is serious about his craft, but Jōji is more approachable than respectful. The background music is rap. Some of tonight’s clients are working upstairs in One Vanderbilt, SL Green’s $3bn office tower, where Boulud Le Pavillon opened last year, a temple for art worshipers he has been refining for more than 50 years.
Boulud appears between courses, giving him bonhomie as he keeps a careful eye on how the newest team is settling in. He suggests that not everything is to his satisfaction yet, but it is clear that the chefs trust each other.
Ruan made his name a little further uptown at Masa, the sushi counter that earned chef Masa Takayama three Michelin stars. Two other Masa veterans, Xiao Lin and Wayne Cheng, joined him at Jōji, bringing the same uncompromising seriousness to seasonal ingredients. Some of the next dishes – translucent, tiny white shrimp, bamboo-box sea urchin, glazed spheres of salmon pea and blue mackerel – have been flown in from Japan. They are so delicate, complex and layered that I love their carbon footprint.
Our courses are delivered at a pace that is just fast enough for us to gain a comprehensive understanding of the particular qualities of Boston tuna or exactly how to grill it. nori before we move on. A second sitting is to be had tonight after our yuzu-scented slice of Japanese muskmelon and a glass of sake for dessert.
When we leave, the grimy reality of the subway will be waiting. We say Mars Komagatake’s single malt offering, suspend our disbelief a little longer, and agree not to think about that just yet.