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Takeout Toro Gets an Upgrade

DATE POSTED:July 10, 2024
Photo: Courtesy of Oita Sushi

Increasingly, “sushi” has come to mean one thing: omakase. I accept some responsibility for contributing to the new definition, but alongside the rise of tasting menus everywhere, there has been a quieter shift in takeout sushi: It’s getting much better. It’s possible the trajectory began with the $800 temaki box Masa started selling at the beginning of the pandemic, though the spots leading the way here charge prices more in line with affordable sit-down sushi, upping the quality of both fish and (crucially) packaging to help grab-and-go meals raise their profile.

I first noticed it about a year ago, with a delivery from Daigo Sushi Roll Bar on Fourth Avenue. The rice was warm and still chewy within its nori wrapper, while the rolls — thick batons of mackerel, sweet raw baby shrimp with shiso leaf and plum paste, and raw scallop with a touch of yuzu kosho — had their own section within the paper container, which flipped open like a gift-size pizza box.

Those same boxes are now popping up everywhere, becoming something like the new standard. Happy Tuna, a takeout-only restaurant with locations in Hudson Yards and Soho, is easily identified by its bright-pink-and-orange boxes. At any of Bondi Sushi’s five stores, sleek, blue-lettered boxes say “rolled with love” on the inside. While a maki flight from Joji Box doesn’t come in as flashy a container, its quality is immediately evident (and it has a built-in compartment for chopsticks).

Maki is the consummate choice for takeout sushi. Oita in Park Slope excels at rolls that are fusion-y but not overloaded with ingredients. In theory, a dot of basil pesto on yellowtail seems wrong, but its flavor makes instant sense. A julienne of mango inside the “happy salmon” roll adds some nice texture, while shredded crab inside the “New York crunch” stays fresh. Each piece is topped with sticks of fried potato that somehow avoid scattering in transit. The same goes for a dab of caviar on a piece of uni temaki, cradled in its container, seaweed still wrapped in a protective layer of plastic with arrows instructing how to pull it off without disrupting the contents. Initially, “I wasn’t a fan of those temaki wraps,” says chef Kris Na, who likes being able to control the freshness of every sheet of seaweed, but even he was pleasantly surprised. “It’s not bad at all.”

Restaurants also understand that packaging can be a useful way to telegraph an ethos. “We don’t use any plastic,” said a server at Sushi Goda on the Upper East Side as I waited for my food. “Except for the soy sauce.” Here, orders come packed into shallow wooden boxes with fitted wooden lids; when a menu has a $30 Wagyu roll, it’s important for the carriage to match the goods.

Noz Market, also on the Upper East Side, leans into a deluxe takeout. There’s an omakase counter and hand-roll bar, while maki is only offered to go. It isn’t a lesser experience or an inexpensive one. Thick, wide futomaki with assorted fish is $45, while one made with snow crab is $65. Another, loaded with glistening toro, is $85. The sight of concentric seaweed circles fitted perfectly into their shiny black boxes helps justify the high buy-in.

After a 90-minute commute home through a storm, I unboxed an anago-cucumber futomaki at the bottom of my bag and found it completely unscathed. The rice was still tender, the eel was mild and sweet, and the tight-wrapped nori held its seal. A side of wasabi came in a leaf inside another container that also held the ginger, while the soy sauce came in packets with a disposable plastic tray — though I could have upgraded to a mini glass bottle for an extra $6.

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