This restaurant is closed!
18 9th Ave
City: New York, NY
Phone: (212) 660-6766
Site: Visit the restaurant site
Area: Meatpacking District
Entree Price: $20-25
It was about ten years ago (maybe a year or two more) that I was a regular at China Grill, one of Jefferey Chodorow's first mega-successes. And as I walked inside the sultry, ebony-toned lobby of Ono, Chodorow's 23rd restaurant—designed with rich, dark and sexy elegance by Jeffrey Beers—who also designed China Grill—I was 24 all over again, and pushing my way through the revolving doors of China Grill, into a long buzzing bar jam-packed stunning suited men gobbling up plates crispy calamari salad while scarfing down fruity cocktails with abandon.
Those were the days—a decade ago, starting my first job as a summer associate at Chadbourne & Park, where my time was split between lunching at Judson Grill and spending too many nights leaning on the bar at China Grill, flirting with the bartenders, watching the chefs fling woks in the open kitchen. It all seemed so simple then. (Cue the violins). If you remember that far back, you also remember that China Grill was THE place to go. It was the first restaurant to make Chinese cuisine a scene to be savored—think 66, ten years ago.
Walk into Ono, close your eyes, and it's 1994 all over again. You feel the China Grill vibe, tweaked for the new Meatpacking millennium. It's big, and bold, with a signature open kitchen and fire-breathing robata grill. Indeed with Ono, Chodorow, who is jumping on the chic-Japanese bandwagon by following up on giant sushi temples like Megu and Matsuri, is attempting a China Grill replay with sushi, robata, nigiri, and more.
Located at the super-fabulous Hotel Gansevoort in the stiletto-scorched Meatpacking District, Ono is all about beautiful people, by way of flattering lighting and sleek design. And it seems that just by virtue of being in there, you too are stunning and fabulous. It's like one of those mirrors that makes you look tall and skinny. The illusion is quite intoxicating. (But then morning comes and reality—and a nice sharp headache—greet you.) But here at Ono, life is good. Everyone looks great, and heck, so do you.
In the moody bar—a chic, low-lit Genie-in-a-bottle type space in the round—you'll find cocktails shaken by stunning men dressed in lapis blue silk tunics that happen to make them all look like Batman's sidekick Robin. Seriously, all these guys need is tights and a cape and they are set for Marvel comics. (Seth from Craftbar is pouring drinks here and for all you women who know who I am talking about, you'll want to go visit him at Ono. He is just as dashing as ever.) But anyway, they are all superheroes in my book because these drinks are amazing. We had three—The Blushing Geisha ($14)—a champagne flute filled with a lovely rose-colored combination of shochu, white grape juice, and prosecco, The Blue Yuzu ($14)—a neon blue margarita-like cocktail made from 100% Blue Agave tequila, lemongrass syrup, and Japanese Yuzu, and The Kimono ($14)—our favorite—an ethereal sipper made from Mandarin puree, 42 Below Vodka, and Prosecco.
After the cocktails, we entered (wobbling slightly) the loft-like dining room and were face to face with a vast space filled with deep red banquettes, glossy espresso-toned tables, and lit with discreet pinpoint spots and overhead chandeliers that resemble paper-lanterns. A grand staircase stands across from backlit walls lined with oversized sake bottles, and a long sushi bar stretches out to line one side of the restaurant, filled with mini icebergs displaying all manner of recently living seafood.
Once tucked into your banquet you will have to deal with the massive menu, which includes small plates, apps, soups and custards, noodles and salads, tempura, the robata grill (skewers and chops), nigiri, futomaki, o no rice rolls and o yes rice rolls, and finally a category called "very large plates." A Power Point presentation would not be unwelcome at this point. Navigating this menu is tough work. Like China Grill, ONO is a wise choice for a large group of friends who like to share. This way, you can order a ton of food and taste a lot of dishes because the menu is really good and it would be a shame to leave out certain categories of food.
While we were figuring out what to order, we proceeded to put a major dent in our bottle of sake—the Wakatake, a fantastic Daiginjo also called Demon Slayer. Needless to say, by the end of the night, we were slayed.
The menu at Ono is in the care of a pair of two chefs—each one interpreting Japan through a different lens. Kazu Hashimoto, formerly of Megu and Brasserie 360, turns out a wild variety of nigiri, maki, and a slew of delicious items from the robata grill—open flame, bincho tan charcoal cooking (this charcoal is made from Northern Japanese oak). Chef Scott Ubert, who was most recently at David Burke and Donatella, heads up the other kitchen, turning out appetizers like the grilled pizza with Japanese eggplant, white miso and shiitake mushrooms ($9), the tower of tartars—salmon, hamachi and tuna—with crispy shrimp crackers ($9) and "Very Large Plates" like tuna porterhouse with wasabi béarnaise, plum-barbecued duck ($19/$29), and pork belly braised shogayaki style with chili spiced pork cracklings ($17).
We started out with skewer combos from the robata grill, and could have been quite content to eat a menu of skewers and only skewers after the first bite of impossibly moist salmon threaded with meaty shiitake mushrooms. The fish was smoky, sweet and rich—slightly charred on the outside, succulent on the inside. Ditto for the tuna with shishito peppers—sweet chile peppers that are similar to Spanish pardons. All robata dishes are served with five stellar dipping sauces—all fresh and vibrant and worthy of a dunk or two (with fingers and food)—shiso pesto, spicy plum miso, sesame mustard, scallion ponzu and kimchee. Keep the tray of 'em on the table for dipping sushi, and virtually anything (or anyone) else that comes round. These condiments are stars.
After the robata, we moved onto some of Kazu's sushi, which is, mostly, delicious. We had a couple of the O No Rice rolls (Atkins has made his mark everywhere)—the Tuna Yuba ($14)—pinwheels filled with a center chunk of fresh tuna, surrounded by diced tuna flecked with spicy tempura flakes, all wrapped up in layers of yuba seaweed—a sort of thin "skin" made from the skim of boiled soymilk, and the Spicy Crab ($16) with avocado, tobiko, and crisp iceberg wrapped in rice paper, which was a little bland and had a strange sour aftertaste. Odd.
We left the crab aside, and instead went to town on an O Yes Rice Roll called the Screaming "O"—(what woman wouldn't want one of those?)—a delicious roll filled with sweet plump, scallops, given a nice crunch from cucumber, tobiko and red onion ($12). The Rainbow ($12), while nothing to write home about in most places, was quite impressive here. It was a modestly sized version of this typically mammoth roll that you can actually eat without choking or making a mess of your outfit (because it is really so impressive to have fish falling into your lap while dining). The rainbow is a standard recipe, but here it tastes remarkable—made from the most delicate slices of tuna, yellowtail, salmon, and eel, with cucumber for texture, and perfectly ripe avocado for a creamy fatty note.
We could have continued to feast on Kazu's sushi all night, but we did want to give the Scott's "Very Large Plates" some attention as well. We decided on the surf and turf ($49) and were presented with a long, thick slab of unctuous braised kobe beef short ribs teamed up with a giant grilled king crab leg that was filled with endless amounts of juicy buttery meat. We toyed with the dish for a few moments, and while it was quite good, but it was useless to persist. We could not eat another bite. Our bottle of Demon Slayer was finished. And, bellies past the point of full, so were we. While the ghosts of China Grill were in the air, ten years have passed since those days when I was a budding lawyer. And at 35, after three cocktails and a bottle of sake, I was done.
Review By: Andrea Strong