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December 6, 2023

Tsubame Joins NYC’s Omakase Ranks

Restaurant of the Week: Tsubame blends the two Japanese concepts of kaiseki and omakase.

By Kim Ayling

New York City is not, in any way, short of high-end omakase-style restaurants, with those with the cash to do so able to eat the best sushi this side of the Pacific. But, despite the saturated market, it seems there is always room for one more – and the newly opened Tsubame is one of the latest in the crop.

Led by chef Jay Zheng, the brains behind Kōyō, Tsubame sits in the heart of Tribeca. Blending the two concepts of kaiseki – typically a set menu of seasonally inspired dishes – and the better-known omakase, in which chefs create an entirely personalized meal based on ingredient availability and guest preferences, Tsubame proudly positions itself as being inspired by traditions of Japanese cuisine, rather than a true reference. 

As a result, Zheng has the liberty of being less formal than other omakase-style restaurants in the city; Tsubame is intended to offer a fun, interactive dining experience.

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tsubume restaurant
There are just ten seats, all arranged around a minute chef’s workspace / ©Tsubame

Chef

Zheng was born in a small village in China, but his family relocated to the Midwest where they ran a small but successful restaurant group. Zheng initially bucked the family trend and studied engineering but eventually hospitality drew him back; a stint at the Peninsula Hotel Chicago was his first real foray into fine dining.

In 2012, he made the leap and opened his first restaurant – a Japanese fusion in Indiana. Four years later, it was to the Big Apple. Here, he opened Gaijin, a fancy sushi spot, before re-branding it as Kōyō post-pandemic, and launching a new kaiseki-inspired tasting menu to boot.

The real goal was a Manhattan restaurant, though. Tsubame is the culmination of Zheng’s career today; a real passion project that embodies his favorite style of dining.

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jay zheng chef
Jay Zheng / ©Tsubame

Menu

While chef Zheng is evidently inspired by the time-honored traditions of Japanese cuisine, he isn’t afraid to throw some more Western ingredients – namely lashings of truffle – into the mix. His eight-course menu follows the typical kaiseki fashion and is carefully ordered, with Zheng doing virtually all the prep and service himself.

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Things kick off with Sakizuke – a small appetizer-style dish. Zheng’s is a house-made milk bread topped with baby shrimp and uni, finished with shiso flowers. The courses that follow are a journey not only through the varying traditions of Japanese food, but also the modern lens through which Zheng interprets them.

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scalloped potato topped with Ossetra caviar
Crispy scalloped potato topped with Ossetra caviar / ©Tsubame

The crispy scalloped potato topped with Ossetra caviar, for example, is designed to give off a Paris-meets-Tokyo vibe, while the chawanmushi (a set savory egg custard) is topping with a generous shaving of black truffle.

The later courses take on a more traditional vein: A procession of carefully prepared nigiri sushi follows, for which Zheng favors a two-grain rice blend and a variety of raw fish sourced from around the world, followed by a caviar and uni rice bowl. The desserts are light and seasonal, acting as a delicate round-off to the experience. 

Like most omakase experiences, dishes are delivered with flourish but Zheng is careful not to border on flashy; everything is deliberate, and never ostentatious. 

[See also: Elite Traveler Reveals Top Restaurants Readers’ Choice 2023]

salmon ngiri
Zheng favors a two-grain rice blend for his nigiri / ©Tsubame

Interiors

Minimal, intimate and discrete: Tsubame is a seriously exclusive space. There are just ten seats, all arranged around a minute chef’s workspace and only two sittings per evening.

Designed by Hong Kong-based Aesam design studio, the interiors are sleek and refined but with a few luxe touches to reflect the level of experience. Blonde wood keeps things light, while black velvet barstools trimmed in gold are the definition of opulent. 

Tasting menu from $225 person. Tsubame, 11 Park Place, New York, NY 1000, exploretock.com

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