Welcome to Eating Japanese, a series in which Eater Editorial Producer Kat Odell explores the city’s collection of unsung Japanese restaurants and bars.
Upon casual inspection, there’s not much evidence that an Asian restaurant inhabits 545 Lorimer Street in Williamsburg. Very little Japanese signage decorates the place and, if anything, Suzume looks cozy and weathered enough to qualify as a neighborhood stalwart that’s been around for at least the last decade. But, enter at 5 p.m. and the telltale sign is the biting aroma of seasoned sushi rice that permeates the air.
Grab a stool from the polished walnut bar that claims almost half Suzume’s 650-square feet of wiggle room — peruse through some Japanese and American beers, rice wine and grape wine, and a flurry of tropical sounding libations flavored with ingredients like coconut water, passionfruit, and calamansi — and the place comes into focus.
As he tells it, chef and co-owner Michael Briones was at an impasse with cooking, and had put down his knife for about six years prior to opening Suzume. The native Hawaiian (though of Filipino descent) had returned home to surf and play drums in a wedding band, and after exhausting financial resources, he returned to New York unsure where to look next. But he had a more than solid resume to fall back on. Briones had cooked at Bond Street during its heyday, then decamped to work with chef John Sundstrom of Lark restaurant in Seattle. He eventually moved on to help open lauded modern sushi restaurant Uchi in Austin. So when Briones returned to New York, two job opportunities landed on the table. He could be a food runner at Momofuku Noodle Bar or make sushi at Masa. But those crazy Masa hours didn’t much appeal to him, so he went the Momo route, first running food, then working as an expediter there for the next five years. Through a mutual friend, he linked up with Sam Barron, a carpenter and industry vet (Maggie Brown, The Emerson Bar) looking for his next project.
Briones and Barron almost signed a lease in Clinton Hill before finding a better suited site in a former dry cleaner on Lorimer Street in Williamsburg. They snagged the tiny space, gutted it, and dumped every last quarter into the build. Barron fashioned the place from top to bottom, and two years ago in January 2013 it opened as Suzume.
“If I had told my partner I was going to open a restaurant dedicated to Hawaiian mall food, he would have never partnered with me,” says Briones with a smile. And while there’s some truth in that statement, with dishes on the menu inspired by foods served at Waikiki’s Ala Moana mall, Suzume is much more than that. Sure, the prices are totally affordable with nothing over $11, but much of the staff here is comprised of Momofuku alumni who bring over a strong sense of professionalism.
Despite Suzume’s concise list of dishes, the range of options is broad. It reads Japanese-Hawaiian, with all the usual suspects: poke, spam musubi, ramen, and sushi. But Briones says he’s serving “food that represents the Asian diaspora,” and since he comes from a Filipino background, there’s some of that influence mixed in as well.
Suzume’s tacos, of which there are three, are served on fried wonton skins and filled with fish, pork, or chicken. The latter is inspired by a Filipino chicken adobo dish, while the pork is like a Hawaiian Kalua pork. In the past he’s served sinigang, a traditional Filipino sour tamarind-based stewy soup with veggies and a variety of proteins. Calamansi, a popular Filipino citrus fruit that looks like a lime but tastes sort of like a sour orange, is a flavoring agent in the Lady Mabel cocktail, along with tequila and Fernet-Branca.
While Briones is open to employees sharing ideas for food and drink, Suzume’s core menu is pretty set. Most popular are his ramens: the YaoYao Ramen based on a traditional tonkatsu pork broth, and a lighter Roasted Salmon Ramen. The YaoYao Ramen is loosely based off the sesame ramen served at lauded Hawaiian ramen-ya Goma Tei at Ala Moana, with sesame notes in the broth and the finishing oil inspired by the oils that sit on top of Goma Tei’s soups.
The salmon ramen, as well as Briones’ poke,sushi, and rolls, all use responsibly caught and local fish when possible, though it’s harder to go local in the winter. Suzume’s sushi is anything but Edo-style traditional. It’s made from fresh, high quality fish, but often dressed with unexpected flavors, like the calamansi ramp vinaigrette found in the salmon poke. There are also California and crunchy-spicy tuna rolls, because as Briones explains, “I just want to make stuff people like, I am not trying to jam anything down anyone’s throat.” As further evidenced by his excellent spicy butter chicken wings (watch out Andy Ricker) and Chinese-style glazed ribs, he’s serving unfussy but thoughtful food with integrity.
“Suzume” is Japanese for “Sparrow.” Which, actually, wasn’t the name after which Briones and Barron were initially planning to name their restaurant. They wanted the Japanese word for “Swallow.” But, when they found out “Suzume” had a different meaning, they had already decided they liked the name and decided to keep it. “We found the name via pure mistranslation … and it’s totally in the spirit of this place,” Briones adds. “Everyone mispronounces it and I am totally into it.”