Are they for reel?
New Yorkers are shelling out serious clams — and casting a wide net — to dine on fish that has been aged for days, sometimes weeks, at some of the city’s finest sushi restaurants.
Natalie Sannes is an avid eater with a particular passion for pesce — the project manager confessed to recently trekking from her Upper West Side neighborhood all the way to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, following up on a tip about some old tuna — aged for a whopping 21 days.
“You walk in and see this beautiful fish display,” Sannes, also a popular sushi Instagrammer, told The Post after her visit to the remote, 12-seat Neta Shari restaurant, where she savored the 15-course, $75 tasting menu, which came with a healthy portion of three-week dry-aged bluefin tuna.
“It melted in your mouth. It practically fell apart. The texture was so amazing,” Sannes said, telling The Post that she was as skeptical as anyone the first time she tried aged fish, saving up $300 to try the omakase menu at Sushi Noz on the Upper East Side. The restaurant had aged tuna on the menu way back in 2019, before the concept began cropping up across the Big Apple.
“I remember hearing about seven-day aged toro — my ears perked up, ’cause you’re like, hold on, how many days? I was an instant convert. Now, anytime I hear three-day aged, I know I’m getting fish that’s way more tender,” Sannes said.
The trend got its sea legs in New York around 2021, when Tadashi Yoshida, one of Japan’s most renowned sushi chefs, opened Yoshino in Noho with a 20-course, $400-per-head menu, starring tuna aged between 10 and 14 days in vacuum-sealed bags submerged in ice water.
More recently, the entire sushi program at newly opened Rockefeller Center Japanese restaurant Taru and its 10-seat sushi counter Kotaru, revolves around dry aging, using a dehydrating sheet and ice pack.
“Aging fish has always been [popular] in the sushi culinary world,” executive chef Tony Inn, formerly of acclaimed sushi restaurants Masa and Morimoto, told The Post. “It makes the protein more tender and intensifies natural umami flavors for an overall better consistency.”
“Usually the fattier the fish the better,” Inn said, stressing that tuna, for example, is better than a leaner fluke. “Leaner fish just becomes much more leathery.”
Dry-aging fish involves scaling, gutting and removing all contaminants from the fish’s cavity; Inn starts 36 hours after every new catch is caught and killed. Excess water is removed, and the fish sits in a low, temperature-controlled refrigerator for a number of days depending on type and size. The aging process breaks down amino acids, yielding a velvety mouthful.
On the $295 omakase menu at Kotaru, bluefin tuna belly is aged for 10 days; hamachi (yellowtail) is aged between three to five days; and kanpachi, or amberjack, is aged between three and five days. (On the Taru menu, Inn features a $50, four-day-aged grilled mackerel.)
Like other popular methods of extending the shelf life of fish — from classic salt cod to trendy fish jerkies to the Sunday-morning staple smoked salmon, aging a slab of fine bluefin requires stringent adherence to food safety to avoid illness. The New York City Department of Health says all cold foods must be stored in a refrigerator at or below 41 degrees Fahrenheit, except for smoked fish, which must be held at or below 38 degrees Fahrenheit at all times. At Neta Shari in Brooklyn, for example, where 90% of the menu is dry-aged, the fish is kept at a chilly 33.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
“If it’s too cold, it creates little frost bites within the fish and when the temperature is too high, it creates a crust, like dry-aged beef,” Neta Shari chef-owner Kevin Chen told The Post. “In dry-aged beef, people tend to age for at least a minimum of 28 days to tenderize it and give it that nutty flavor. But for fish, it doesn’t have that quality,” he said, noting his restaurant only ages fish between seven and 21 days.
“That’s the optimal time for the fish, anything longer doesn’t do much,” Chen said.
Inn, who monitors the temperature of the fish served at Kotaru and Taru obsessively, says the trend has taken off not only because of the taste, but also due to inflation and shortages of certain types of fish.
“It has been brought to the forefront recently due to [increasingly] challenging logistics,” he said, noting: “Your local small mom-and-pop sushi restaurants can’t afford to have deliveries five days a week.”
Aging, he says, allows for better cost control, and more wiggle room than you’d normally get when trying to serve everything fresh.
And for skeptics who think the whole thing sounds, well, a little fishy, a great piece of aged tuna won’t smell at all, said Inn. Freshness is a fallacy, he insisted, noting that the optimal wait time before consuming fish is 48 hours after it’s out of the water.
“Truth be told, [until then] it’s quite difficult to process, pin bones are impossible to take out and the meat is chewy and spongy. Humorously, I have had guests complain that the fish is not fresh due to this issue specifically,” he said.
“[Aged] definitely has a cleaner smell than non-dry-aged fish, because the chemical reaction that creates that fishy smell doesn’t take place,” sushi scholar Sannes said, adding that the scent is “almost meaty, similar to a cut of steak but with briny hints of the sea and salty, smoky notes.”