Monthly Archives: September 2015

Sushi Samba

I ate at Sushi Samba for the first time 15 years ago when I first visited NYC as a student. I believe it was located more Uptown then, and it happened to be my first exposure to Japanese-fusion food outside of Japan. I was introduced to this restaurant through one of my father’s friends who was a Japanese businessman working in Manhattan at the time. I was amazed at the creativity and different ingredients that were being used for sushi. Things like beef tataki, avocado, quinoa, jalapeno and cilantro were all new to me as an ingredient of sushi. In fact, my father’s friend said “this is not a sushi restaurant, and I don’t think it will survive”. Because it was so different to what I was familiar with in Japan, I found it difficult to really consider it sushi, but I really enjoyed the food and uniqueness of it.

Fast forward to recently when I came across Sushi Samba in the West Village. I had a flashback to my grad school days and remembered how my dad’s friend predicted this fusion-style sushi (and this particular restaurant) would not last. And clearly he was wrong. I’m sure it has survived because it offers an interesting and unique selection of sushi, has Japanese-style quality, and seems to always offer something new and exciting. I have since introduced Sushi Samba to Japanese friends new to NYC and it is fun to see that they have the same reaction that I did nearly 20 years ago!


In fact, in one summer weekend, I took my friends from Japan to Sushi Samba. We ordered a mix of lots of plates to share at our friendly server recommendation and were thrilled with what we tried. Particularly we enjoyed 4 rolls from Samba Rolls choice – Samba 7 (lobster with lemongrass, tuna, cucumber, creamy sesame, aji panca), Neo Tokyo (bigeye tuna, tempura flake, aji panca), Umami (American wagyu beef, shrimp tempura, avocado, truffle oil) and KARI KARI (tuna, salmon, yellowtail, shrimp, eel, crab meat, crispy fried rice, kabayaki sauce, wasabi aioli). All my friends were amazed by the fun spin on Japanese cuisine by mixing it with Peruvian and Brazilian flavor.

Price: $10+ for a roll set

Neighborhood: West Village

Dress code: High-end Casual

Takeout: yes



Aya is a tapas restaurant/shochu bar located on a busy corner in Midtown East. Set in a small, cozy space, I would say this is a great hideaway tucked in the city. Originally I was invited to Aya by a Japanese organization in NYC, and I found that the menu was creative and very similar to Italian-Japanese fusion restaurants I used to enjoy in Tokyo.


Luckily enough, I have an Italian-American friend who works a block away from the restaurant and I asked her to join me. She was not even aware that this was a location that served nice tapas. We started with Petit Caprese (Small Mozzarella Balls, Cherry Tomatoes, and Basil), shochu mussels (steamed mussels with “Kawabe” rice shochu), Russian potato salad, and one of their best sellers: tori karaage, or Japanese style fried chicken. The bar offers a variety of sake and shochu that compliment these tasty and unique tapas. We ordered Kurokirishima, which was a great pairing to all of the appetizers. We followed with main entrees of steak on garlic rice and spaghetti alla carbonara. The steak was a hanger steak over pan-fried garlic buttered rice – tender, flavorful, and pre-sliced for easy consumption. The meat had a slightly crispy (almost charred) outside and a perfectly medium-cooked center. Oishii and highly recommended! The carbonara was equally delicious. We wanted to order other entrees but were too stuffed to even contemplate reading the dessert menu. We both agreed to plan for a return visit in order to try other things.


Two weeks after this dinner I was fortunate enough to visit for lunch. Several colleagues were looking for a nice, quiet place to have a reasonably priced lunch and I immediately thought of Aya. And even though the restaurant does not have a huge space, there are three sections that can accommodate small groups: the entrance area which almost feels like a small outdoor patio with a single table, the bar/lounge area (the “lounge” area is a cozy space with a low table and ottoman-like chairs), and a main dining area in the back.

The lunch menu was more Japanese than the Japanese-Italian one I had previously for dinner. The choices were categorized by meat, fish, or noodles – details and prices are here, and it was challenging to decide which one to order as all sounded delicious. Most of the entrees also include a small salad and miso soup. I ordered the Wafu Hamburg, which a Japanese style hamburger steak topped with grated daikon (radish) and ponzu sauce. The meat was tender and easily “slicked” with chopsticks, and it appeared to be seared enough to keep the natural juices and flavor inside.


The quality of the dishes at Aya are unparalleled in my opinion. Both lunch and dinner offer amazing menus, and one can expect to walk away very satisfied and wanting to return. This is one of my favorite restaurants in NYC!

Price: $15-20 for lunch, and tapas start at $6 dinner

Neighborhood: Midtown

Dress code: Casual

Takeout: yes

Rai Rai Ken

One evening while on a M101 bus I noticed a restaurant in Harlem with hanging red lanterns out front. I felt the place was calling me so I decided to get off and try it out. I soon realized that the restaurant was a local branch of Rai Rai Ken from the East Village with a slightly different menu and cheaper prices. I chatted with a waitress and heard that the owner felt ramen was relatively new to Harlem and wanted to share it with people in the area.


The shop is small and has less than 20 seats, but I noticed they received telephone orders for delivery or pick-up nearly every minute. As I always do in a ramen shop, I ordered miso ramen, and here it was topped with garlic, which is unique but also complementary to the miso. According to Chopsticks NY magazine, Rai Rai Ken does not use MSG in its ramen soup which explains why I felt the taste seemed somewhat lighter than I am used to. Not using MSG seems somewhat rare in NYC, so Rai Rai Ken offers a true Tokyo experience. I also ordered their gyoza – delicious and homemade – very similar that found in my hometown of Utsonomiya.

Ramen shops are sometimes treated as premium cuisine in some parts of NYC, but in my opinion, ramen should be a casual meal like it is considered in Japan. Rai Rai Ken is a great place to eat ramen – regardless of whether it is your first time or not.

Price: $10+ for ramen dishes

Neighborhood: Harlem

Dress code: Casual

Takeout: yes