U Omakase (173 Greenpoint Ave.) is opening on September 3 in Greenpoint. The restaurant is the result of a decades-long friendship between a sushi chef and his customer. Owner and sous-chef, Luis Durand, frequented Yasu Hirashiki’s popular Forrest Hills sushi restaurant, and the two formed a connection.
After Hirashiki’s restaurant closed during the pandemic, Durand and his wife Kate, who owns a yoga and pilates studio in Greenpoint called YO BK, teamed up with Hirashiki and another partner, Arnon Magal, former owner of Gotan NYC and current owner of Novela Cafe in Miami, to make U Omakase come to life.
Greenpointers spoke with Chefs Hirashiki and Durand about their friendship, the best dishes at their new local restaurant, and their favorite spots in Greenpoint.
Greenpointers: Welcome to Greenpoint! We heard that U Omakase has an interesting origin story. Tell us how you two met and eventually ended up opening a restaurant together.
Chef Luis Durand: It all started when I broke my back and couldn’t walk for nine months. I consequently gained weight and was not healthy. I didn’t go out a lot, but on my birthday, my friend Alex said he was taking me to a place in Forest Hills that had the best sushi I’d ever eat. It was Yasu’s restaurant.
The day we went was Halloween, so there were not a lot of customers, but the health inspector was coming. I used to work for the Health Department, so I helped Yasu prepare. After helping him, Yasu told me I was overweight and he was going to teach me how to eat. I went to his place every single day, and he helped me lose 80 pounds. He changed my life.
Greenpointers: That’s an amazing story! How did the two of you and your partners land on the name “U”?
Chef Luis Durand: The restaurant has a U-shaped bar with walkway in middle. It’s communal; people sit around it and we serve from the center.
We were sitting in the restaurant one night and thought why don’t we call it “U” after the bar, but also after “you” meaning “you and me.”
Chef Yasu Hirashiki: We want the food to make U happy.
Greenpointers: What will the experience at U Omakase be like?
Chef Luis Durand: There will be 13 seats at the bar and 13 dishes on the tasting menu. My wife, Kate, likes that number. There will also be two seats in front of Yasu called the Chef’s Table.
We won’t be Masa or be a traditional omakase. We want to get close to it and still have fun.
We want customers to enjoy a fine dining experience, but not be bored.
There will always be fun music. We might play the Beatles and then jump to reggaeton. The vibe here is more about having fun and enjoying the music and the food.
Greenpointers: Could you give Greenpointers a little preview of what the menu will feature?
Chef Luis Durand: We are offering a tasting menu that is primarily Japanese, with French influences. For example, we make a steamed white fish in a cream sauce, that is an example of Japanese and French cuisine. But I don’t want to call it a fusion. I am from Paraguay, so there will be Latin influences, also.
Every fish we use on the menu is flown in from Japan. It’s a commitment, but Yasu is a purist when it comes to sushi. We want an ‘ocean to table’ feel.
So many sushi restaurants don’t go that far and don’t use super fresh fish. We want you to taste the fish. We do not use a lot of sauce or mayo. We only add a sauce if it brings out the taste of the fish.
The menu will change every week and will include whatever we get fresh flown in from Japan. It will also include whatever vegetables are in season. We can try different things. If it’s not in season in Japan, we can complete dishes with something in season in the Mediterranean, for example.
Greenpointers: What are some menu highlights? Do you have any favorite dishes?
Chef Luis Durand: There is a scallop dish that we call the Marilyn Monroe because it has salmon roe. It’s Chef Yasu’s special recipe.
There is also a dish that has uni with truffle which we love and will try to always include on the menu. There will be two or three dishes that stay the same.
Another thing we will try to keep on the menu is an oyster course, with a Kumamoto or a local oyster in season. It usually has ponzu, chili flakes, and salmon roe.
Greenpointers: What makes Yasu’s sushi “the best you’ll every eat,” as described by your friend?
Chef Luis Durand: Yasu trained with the best sushi chefs in Japan and learned that is important for fish not to smell. There are restaurants that are expensive and fancy, yet the fish smells, and thus the whole restaurant smells. Part of the job of a sushi chef is making it not smell. Many chefs mask the fishy taste and smell with sauces.
Chef Yasu Hirashiki: One problem is that a lot of places have different types of fish touching each other. For example, the salmon and tuna are touching, stacked next to each other. The problem with that is the taste from one fish goes to the new fish.
When cutting fish and making sushi, you have to wash hands right away. You never touch the same thing without washing hands. Knives and cutting boards needs to be washed between each fish, too.
There are young chefs that have only trained two years that make great sushi, however they have lost the tradition. I learned that there is training you need to follow, which includes a lot of washing.
Greenpointers: When you are not at the restaurant, what are your favorite dishes to make at home?
Chef Yasu Hirashiki: I don’t make sushi at home. When I’m home, I mostly eat for my health, and I think about what kind of food is good for me. I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables, and a lot of fish. I eat pizza maybe once a month.
Greenpointers: What made you choose Greenpoint as the location for your restaurant? What do you like about the neighborhood?
Luis: I grew up in Woodside (in Queens). We are living in Williamsburg now, and Kate’s studio is in Greenpoint. I love the neighborhood.
Greenpoint feels like the best of Brooklyn. Everybody is here. You have someone in an outfit that costs $10k hanging with a person that has on a $15 outfit. You’ve got Polish people hanging with Japanese people. There are Michelin-starred restaurants next to casual takeout restaurants. There are expensive coffeeshops and cheap bodegas.
Greenpointers: What is your favorite restaurant in Greenpoint right now?
Luis: For pasta, one of my favorites is Forma (14 Bedford Ave.). I like their whole concept. It’s a pasta factory that makes four or five pasta dishes every day and one special dish. Try the lasagna on a Sunday!
I also like El Born (651 Manhattan Ave.). I like them all. There are so many good restaurants here. I let my wife drag me around to places she wants to try!