Sustainable Sushi at Mayanoki Pop-up

In a city where there are three different multi-location smoothie joints (Liquiteria, Juice Press, Juice Generation), where you can buy sustainably made clothing from several different stores (Bhoomki, Kaight, Reformation), where you can order a hybrid car service, where there are dozens of legitimate farm-to-table restaurants, it boggles the mind that there is no restaurant yet serving sustainable sushi.

After all, it’s the sushi industry that is driving tuna to the brink of extinction. But every time I look at a sushi menu, I rule out most of the options because the fish featured isn’t sustainably harvested. This is a pity, because I really enjoy sushi and long to partake in the elegant, minimalist ceremony of a skilled chef placing piece after piece on my plate for me to savor and enjoy.

Which is why I was thrilled to be invited to the Mayanoki sushi pop-up.* Mayanoki (my-ya-no-key) is a sushi pop-up restaurant that serves locally and sustainably sourced seafood in a traditional multi-course omakase format. They are the first Monterey Bay-certified sushi restaurant in New York.

Mayanoki founders David Torchiano and Josh Arak

Mayanoki founders David Torchiano and Josh Arak

The founders, David Torchiano and Josh Arak, were just plain sushi obsessives three years ago. They would visit their favorite chef, Albert, at the restaurant Zutto. That is, until he left. And they were bereft. So they started holding small dinners for their friends in their apartments, with Albert as the chef.

“We learned a lot getting into the sushi business,” David told me at Brooklyn Oenology, a wine bar in Williamsburg where the pop-up is now held. A mini sushi restaurant had been set up in the corner, with two tables with eight seats forming an L shape around a temporary sushi kitchen complete with a refrigerated case. Inside the “kitchen,” Albert was carefully sharpening knives and organizing the cuts fish. “As we learned more and more about the way fish were harvested, we decided that we didn’t want to eat that kind of food or serve it to our guests,” David continued. So a year and a half ago, they changed focus to sustainable sushi.

Sushi chef Albert

Sushi chef Albert

“The US has amazing seafood, 90% of which gets sent overseas, and we end up importing non-sustainable seafood from overseas,” David told me. “So we decided to celebrate the seafood from the U.S. It’s very easy to get farmed salmon and farmed yellowtail. Some U.S. tuna is considered sustainable, like yellowfin or big-eyed tuna if it’s caught using hand-line or troll, but we decided not to do that. There are thousands of other fish we could be presenting to people. Tonight we have wild salmon which is really sustainable. We also have arctic char, which is one of the most sustainable, if not the most sustainable, farmed fish species. And striped bass is also a very robust stock. We like to show people how two fish can be similar but also show how they are different and our customers love that. They love to be able to try things side by side and make up their own mind about a fish. A lot of people used to tell us that nobody would like to eat Arctic char as sushi, but many of our customers say it’s their favorite piece and want another one.”

“A lot of it is education. People are used to eating a crunch salmon roll, and they don’t realize it’s not so great for themselves or the environment. People think, oh, I love how fatty the tuna is. If it’s fat, it’s because it can’t swim in the farm pens. Fish shouldn’t be fat or have marbling. They do nothing but swim all day and eat fish. A good salmon should be lean and taste fresh.”

It’s not exactly easy to run a sustainable sushi restaurant, even if it’s only every few weeks. (They hope to eventually open a full-time restaurant.) “What I realized when I started to try sourcing it is that most people don’t care where the seafood comes from. They’re just trying to sell fish. The seafood industry is so opaque.” Fishmongers may be able to tell you the species, but they don’t know where it’s from or how it was caught. Some even try to pass off cheap imported fish as expensive and/or local fish.

Sustainable sushi

The week I attended the pop-up, David went to three or four different fishmongers to get the 12-course dinner together. It had been a long, frozen winter, which made procuring oysters and other fish difficult. The stock of sea urchin from California is also drying up, and scallops have been hard to get to. “It might just be the turn of the season,” David says. “But because we’re buying stuff that is seasonal, we’ll see stuff over the weekend, and we’ll hope purveyors get more in by Tuesday.”

It was time for dinner to start, so we wrapped up our conversation as the guests took their seats. Brooklyn Oenology poured everyone a starter glass of wine as Albert set about preparing the first round of sushi. There was plenty of time to talk with the people at the table as he worked, though while I did chat some with the woman seated next to me, I would often fall silent and watch Albert work. That seemed a large part of the fun. Well, fun is the wrong word. It was meditative.

One by one, he placed sushi over rice on our plate, announcing the fish species, provenance, sauce and other garnishes: oyster from Maine, fluke from Long Island, striped bass from North Carolina, black sea bass and Spanish Mackerel from New Jersey, albacore from South Carolina, arctic char from Iceland, king salmon from Alaska, scallop from Martha’s Vineyard, Lobster from Maine, octopus from Spain, and uni from Santa Barbara, California.

A tattooed sommelier came by a few times with describe the next wine pairing, holding a bottle against his tattooed arm that glowed in the candlelight. Each wine had a subtle twist to them, like a rosé whose, “wild ferment gives it a funky taste.” I was kept me occupied in between sushi platings rolling around the multi-layered flavor profiles of the wine in my mouth.

I watched Albert use a blowtorch to lightly roast the Spanish mackerel, while the couples at the table grew increasingly distracted talking about this and that. He handed us the lobster course directly into our hands, telling us to eat it straight away. I could have floated in that space forever, never full, never hungry, never drunk, but never quite sober, just accepting piece after piece of sushi and glass after glass of wine, savoring the tastes and smells and visual ceremony.

Eventually, though, it came to an end. I was so taken with the wine pairings, that I ended up buying a reasonably priced bottle of rosé and walking home, happily buzzed, head cleared as if having come from restorative yoga. The funny thing was, when I opened the bottle of rosé later that week, it didn’t taste nearly as good. It was just a rosé. It must have been something about the fish, the place, the milieu.

Their next two dinners for Sustainable Seafood Week are already sold out, so if you want to experience Mayanoki for yourself, sign up for the newsletter to be the first to know about the next dinners after that.

*They invited to me to come free of charge, though I paid for my own wine.