Nami Nori, the NYC restaurant that celebrates the humble hand roll, opened in 2019, but its origin started years prior, in a decidedly more upscale location. Nami Nori’s partners, Taka Sakaeda, Jihan Lee, and Lisa Limb, met while working under chef Masa Takayama, the only three-star Michelin sushi chef in the country. Omakase at Masa is $750 per person, not including beverage and tax. Dining there is almost a religious experience, a hushed occasion that lasts for hours.
One day during family meal — the rare time to pause during the hectic pace of a restaurant shift — the employees started dreaming up concepts for their own restaurants. Sakaeda, Lee, and Limb wanted to open a different kind of restaurant, one that would become part of the fabric of their neighborhood. “We noticed that a lot of super-high-end, expensive sushi spots doing omakase were opening in New York City,” remembers Limb. “We wanted to go in the opposite direction and do something young and fun.” Limb’s husband is from Brazil, where temakerias had started popping up, but the trend hadn’t yet made it to NYC.
The idea behind Nami Nori was born. They envisioned a casual spot that embraced both traditional sushi techniques and creative playfulness, a place people would return to again and again, not just on a (very) special occasion.
They wanted to charge reasonable prices and specialize in open temaki hand rolls — fish or veggies atop seasoned sushi rice, placed in a bundle held together with a square of nori. Hand rolls are “more traditionally served in a cone or cigar-style,” explains Limb, but Nami Nori serves theirs open, “like a sushi taco.” They found these to be an exciting vehicle to deliver the best sushi had to offer — bright flavors, fresh ingredients — in an accessible, fun new format. At Masa, the toro scallion temaki had been “the very best,” Limb says, and Nami Nori is all about “every bite being as wonderful as that.”
Nami Nori’s signature item takes inspiration from all over the Asian continent. There are options that any sushi fan will recognize immediately, like salmon avocado and yellowtail scallion. Then there are plenty of Nami Nori’s own, more esoteric creations. There’s spicy, plump butter-poached lobster with fragrant shiso and crispy potato. Sea scallops marry well with XO sauce and a bright squeeze of lemon; coconut shrimp with green curry and cilantro are unexpected in a sushi roll but so delicious it tastes almost inevitable. There are plenty of vegan options too, like chimichurri tofu, maitake truffle, and eggplant with red miso and crunchy gobo chips. It was important to the trio for vegan dishes to be integral to the menu instead of simply an afterthought. “We want everyone to feel truly included,” Limb says.
It took the group a few years after their initial conversation to turn their restaurant dream into reality. They left Masa at different times, reconnected, and got to work. Nami Nori’s first location opened in the West Village in October 2019. The restaurant was met with immediate acclaim: It received two stars from The New York Times, and Esquire highlighted it as one of the Best New Restaurants in America 2020. Last year, the group opened their second location in Williamsburg, with a menu adds some exclusive items (like a creamy mushroom dip with black garlic and tofu cream) to their usual temaki rolls and beloved desserts (miso chocolate chip cookies and mochi-based, deep-fried mochurros served with lemon curd). When we sat down with Limb, they were just about to open their newest location in Montclair, New Jersey, their third spot.
The airy, minimalist space is a nod to Nami Nori’s name, which means “to surf.” It’s inspired by a “relaxed, beachy vibe, with light, bright interiors,” says Limb. Think of it like heading to “a friend’s beach house for a dinner party,” she says. It would be a truly special dinner party, of course, from executive chef Taka Sakaeda, who worked at Masa for 10 years, making some of the city’s most acclaimed, expensive sushi.
From Masa, the team adopted the ethos of carefully considering even the smallest detail. For example, how do you replicate the freshness of passing a bite directly from a sushi chef to a diner over a counter when that perfect bite has to travel? Sakaeda and Limb used rice ball wrappers from Japanese convenience stores as inspiration, and custom designed them to protect the freshness and crunch of the nori, so Nami Nori’s temaki can look and taste great when it arrives at your door. (Bonus: Their plastic wrappers are compostable!)
Sakaeda and Limb both love the creative process, especially developing and perfecting new dishes. Limb finds true joy in the journey, “to have a vision, to see something in one’s mind, then to gather all the people and see it come to fruition through teamwork with amazing folks.” She especially loves the collaborative process of creating new menu items, like buttery miso clam soup and crispy furikake fries with tomato tonkatsu.
Nami Nori has come into its own in an unquestionably difficult time, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the surge of violence directed at Asian Americans. “Going through everything these past years with our teammates — they have become family,” Limb reflects. As Nami Nori continues to expand, the team thinks of everyone who orders and experiences their food as part of that family.