Posted: Feb 08, 2017
Nakazawa is the most controversial new restaurant that will open in the United States of America in 2017.
Had it arrived two years ago, with the same sushi, in the same place—the grand Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D. C.—you can be sure that tantalizing pictures of chef Daisuke Nakazawa's hay-smoked skipjack and still-alive-and-wriggling tiger shrimp would have graced the Instagram feeds of every food-media mandarin in the country. After all, the restaurant's New York City forerunner, Sushi Nakazawa, received a rare four stars from The New York Times in 2013. This is nigiri at its most exciting and exquisite.
Instead, Nakazawa and the streetwise 36-year-old entrepreneur behind it, Alessandro Borgognone, might just get the silent treatment from more than a few gastro-influencers. Sushi lover and gonzo food sage Anthony Bourdain has already declared that he refuses to patronize the place; he has a low opinion of Borgognone. "I will never eat in his restaurant," Bourdain told the blog Eater at the end of 2016. "I have utter contempt for him, utter and complete contempt."
Sushi lover and gonzo food sage Anthony Bourdain has already declared that he refuses to patronize the place.
There is a reason for this vitriol: Borgognone and his team have leased the space for Nakazawa from none other than Donald J. Trump. Trump's company took over the post office in 2013 and announced plans to convert it into a luxury hotel. It was originally supposed to house restaurants by chefs José Andrés and Geoffrey Zakarian, but they backed out after Trump gave his presidential campaign a back-alley injection of toxic juice by categorizing Mexicans as "rapists." Lawsuits started flying back and forth. Into this hostile breach swept Borgognone, who, on the face of it, did only what businessmen have done since the dawn of time: He saw an opportunity and he grabbed it. (That said, Nakazawa will appear in a different part of the building from where the other restaurants would have been. "We didn't want sloppy seconds," Borgognone told me.) In doing so, he has guaranteed that he'll be taking a whole lot of shit for a long time.
I met with Borgognone right after Christmas, interested to hear how he was faring. The curious case of Mr. Nakazawa Goes to Washington struck me as a prime example of how political allegiances can affect (and infect) the optics in this wildly divisive age of Trump. The guy must have known that his saying yes after Andrés and Zakarian said no would generate a fair amount of blowback, but he still seemed surprised that the move couldn't be accepted as a fundamental entrepreneurial transaction. "You can't fault a businessperson," he said. "Our decision was based on that. If people don't walk in and we're dead, then it was a bad business decision. I'm man enough to live with that. We didn't have a political agenda. We didn't want to kiss Trump's ass. We fell in love with the building."
He dismissed Bourdain as a "glorified line cook on CNN" who, in spite of his travels around the world, "has basically learned nothing." The two have never met, but, naturally, they share a New York mode of conversational combativeness. "Having contempt for someone you don't know is pretty childish to me," he went on. "I wouldn't say it hurts because he doesn't know me."
Borgognone offered a variety of points in his defense. He said that revenue had not slipped even slightly at his two best-known properties in New York, Sushi Nakazawa and his upscale revival of Chumley's, the literary-progressive landmark in the West Village. He described himself as a registered Democrat who's "socially liberal, fiscally conservative" and a believer in climate change—although it became clear over the course of two hours that he is no hater of Trump ("I don't think he's as stupid as everybody says"). He noted that his business partner is an immigrant from Japan and his own parents are immigrants from Italy. He winningly let it slip that Sushi Nakazawa had once failed to provide a seat for Ted Cruz, even after receiving four beseeching calls from the then-presidential candidate's team.
"We didn't turn him down because he was Ted Cruz," Borgognone continued. "We turned him down because we had no space." See? It's just business.
But as those who have absorbed the timeless lessons of The Godfather know, business is never just business. Even the simplest transaction— getting a drink at your favorite bar, filling your tank at your preferred gas station—signifies a world of relationships and values. (During our conversation, Borgognone flashed a literary reference that seemed to undermine his own line of defense: "Machiavelli once said you can't be neutral. You can't be in the middle. When it comes down to it, you have to pick a side.") In defending the entrepreneurial prerogative, he sounds like no one so much as his landlord, the 45th president of the United States—a man who, we should point out, doesn't seem to have the stomach for raw fish. The old political duality boiled down to the tedious intricacies of right versus left. The blunt new national ethos? Get it while you can.
What used to be known as a Faustian bargain is starting to look like the art of the deal
By Jeff Gordinier
February 6, 2017
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