Not long after the original Haru opened in 1996 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, my husband and I dined there with an out-of-town friend—and before long, it became apparent that the staff was convinced that my husband was a celebrity.
In spite of our polite demurral, the food kept arriving and the staff kept peeking from the kitchen and, finally, at meal’s end, my husband acquiesced and scrawled an indecipherable autograph on the proffered placemats and paper. Given that our facility with Asian languages was conjectural, we were unable to determine precisely who the staff imagined him to be—but in the years hence, we’ve dined on that story repeatedly.
Recalling the generous hospitality of that evening, it’s not surprising that Haru founder Barbara Matsumura has become one of the city’s most innovative restaurateurs. It was Matsumura who pioneered the practice of serving sizable sashimi pieces, notably at Tomo—and it was Matsumura whose Flushing restaurant Joe’s Shanghai opened in 1995 and created a citywide craze for its signature soup dumplings. Having opened numerous restaurants, Matsumura sold the eight-restaurant Haru empire to Benihana in 1999, focusing on her latest restaurant concept Natsumi.
Inspired by her travels to Italy, Matsumura recently opened Natsumi Tapas, an amalgam of Japanese and Italian cuisines in a kitchen helmed by sushi chef Hiroyuki Nagao alongside consulting chef Andrea Tiberi from Perugia, Italy. Nagao’s background includes stints at Nobu and Blue Ribbon Sushi, as well as Haru and Tomo. What’s remarkable about the pairing of these two classic cuisines is the restaurant’s focus on simplicity alongside a respect for the integrity of ingredients. Exemplary seafood complements fresh pasta with homemade sauces.
Consider, for example, the sushi and sashimi starter: six pieces of Nagao’s choice that showcase the high quality of the raw fish. One bite, two bites—and you know you’re in good hands and ready for more. Next, try the tuna avocado tataki: an elegant presentation of thinly-sliced avocado alongside sashimi grade tuna drizzled in a ginger ponzu sauce. Perfectly simple and simply delicious. A seafood toban yaki arrives piping hot in a ceramic crock: the sort of comforting meal-in-a-pot made for a dark and stormy night.
Located in Kips Bays at the Marcel Hotel, the restaurant showcases small plates, as well as larger ones meant for sharing, a culinary strategy complemented by a well-designed stylish space. A front bar and lounge is distinct from a sleek dining room which offers various private nooks and several communal tables near the sushi bar. Natsumi’s atmospheric lighting and excellent acoustics mean that a couple intent on romance can be tucked happily into a corner booth, while the lounge is filled with revelry.
A pasta entrée of grilled shitake penne is coated with an umami-rich truffle cream sauce that lingers on the palate, all but forcing a smile of contentment. Similarly, a trio of Natsumi carpaccio beautifully straddles the line between Japanese and Italian with a plate of razor-thin raw salmon dressed with spicy sesame, tuna with a pepperoncini vinaigrette, and Japanese snapper dotted with ponzu oil. Close your eyes and you might be in Venice or Tokyo.
The word “Natsumi” is comprised of the Japanese words for “summer” and “beauty.” Often a given name in Japan, the word also has etymological roots that can mean “to pick” and “vegetables or greens.” Two desserts on the menu fit the definition nicely. A banana spring roll, lightly fried and served warm, is served on a bed of mint leaves with a ramekin of chocolate sauce. Equally delicious is the “Chocolate Saucy Cake,” a hockey puck of molten chocolate that oozes temptation as much as its cheeky name.
In fact, that dessert epitomizes the restaurant’s charms: as delicious as it looks, Natsumi Tapas blends the best of Italy and Japan and claims a corner in Manhattan.