Columbus Circle sits at the southwest corner of Central Park in New York City. At its center, a statue of Christopher Columbus peers over a sea of people, as though looking for land, while yellow taxis whirl around him. The tallest structure around the circle is the Time Warner Center. It’s a modern glassy building with twin 80-story towers, housing the headquarters of the eponymous media conglomerate, a hotel, a jazz concert hall, and a luxury shopping mall. If you enter through the building’s giant glass facade, you’ll pass by a Hugo Boss, a Whole Foods, and a Williams Sonoma. Take a series of escalators up to the fourth floor, turn right and you’ll reach Masa — the most expensive restaurant in the United States.
Masa was founded by the sushi wizard Masayoshi Takayama. Born and raised in Japan, Takayama, 62, built a cult following in Beverly Hills during the 1980s and ’90s and was lured east to work his magic when the $2 billion Time Warner Center was finished in 2004. Masa is one of the crown jewels in the center’s “Restaurant Collection,” which is best thought of as the world’s most extravagant food court.
With the exception of the H&M you pass to get there, everything about Masa screams luxury. The sushi bar, hewn from one solid 30-foot piece of blonde hinoki wood at a cost nearly twice that of a new Mercedes Benz, is sanded daily for cleanliness. Much of its fish, the restaurant says, is flown in fresh from the Sea of Japan. The restaurant is “omakase,” meaning Takayama hand selects the menu each night. On one recent Saturday night, appetizers included toro tartare with caviar, steamed king crab, and Ohmi beef with Bianchetto truffle. That was followed by a long list of sushi, from toro (tuna) to shimaji (striped jack) to hotate (bay scallop). Finally came dessert: grapefruit granite and buckwheat tea.
Mott Haven and its neighbor Port Morris represent the poorest zip code in the poorest congressional district of the entire U.S. In some areas of Mott Haven and Port Morris, a typical household could save for an entire month, without paying rent or any other expenses, and they still wouldn’t have enough for a single dinner date at Masa.
Food critics go crazy for this place. Masa’s long list of awards includes the coveted three-star rating from the Michelin guidebook, a distinction held by only six restaurants in the Big Apple. Anthony Bourdain wrote that his experience at Masa was “a completely over-the-top exercise in pure self-indulgence, like having sex with two five-thousand-dollar-a-night escorts at the same time — while driving an Aston Martin.” It’s a hedonistic food orgy that comes at a mind-boggling price: a minimum of $1,200 for a couple, not including tax or drinks.
Takayama co-owns another restaurant just across Central Park called Kappo Masa. The menu there is a la carte and slightly cheaper, but just barely. Options include a sushi roll that’s $240, a steak that’s $68, and a bottle of sake that’s $2,650. This restaurant has not been as warmly received by critics. Pete Wells, a food critic for the New York Times, wrote in his review of the restaurant last year: “The cost of eating at Kappo Masa is so brutally, illogically, relentlessly high, and so out of proportion to any pleasure you may get, that large numbers start to seem like uninvited and poorly behaved guests at the table.” Wells gave the restaurant zero stars.
Kappo Masa is located on Madison Ave. in the Lenox Hill neighborhood of the Upper East Side, sandwiched between Central Park and the luxury apartment buildings of Park Avenue. Across the street are multimillion-dollar art galleries, the Carlyle Hotel (with rooms ranging from $400 to $15,000-plus per night), and Vera Wang Bride, a store for the designer’s wedding dresses (the starting price of one is $2,900). Wang is a regular at Kappo Masa, and so are many other locals. They can, after all, afford it. With a median household income of an estimated $217,070 per year, the blocks around Kappo Masa are some of the richest in New York City.
Fifty blocks north of Kappo Masa and across the Harlem River we find a very different economic reality, and a very different market for fish. The South Bronx neighborhood of Mott Haven is the poorest neighborhood in the city. In fact, with a median household income of $19,536 a year and a poverty rate of near 50 percent, Mott Haven and its neighbor, Port Morris, represent the poorest zip code in the poorest congressional district of the entire U.S. In some areas of Mott Haven and Port Morris, a typical household could save for an entire month, without paying rent or any other expenses, and they still wouldn’t have enough for a single dinner date at Masa.
When it comes to addressing poverty and inequality, making artisanal sushi accessible to the poor has got to be at the bottom of the list of priorities. But food disparities remain a real problem — one that is manifested in issues like higher rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease among South Bronxites — and it’s an issue reflected in the lower rate of fish consumption among the poor. Fish, which is low in fat and rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids, is considered by experts to be an integral part of a healthy diet (especially if it is not fried and if it contains low levels of mercury). One influential meta-analysis of 20 studies in this area concluded that regular consumption of fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and herring “reduces risk of coronary death by 36 percent.” The Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency recommend that Americans, especially pregnant women and young children, eat “at least 8 ounces and up to 12 ounces (2–3 servings) per week of a variety of fish that are lower in mercury to support fetal growth and development” — a recommendation they’re concerned that many Americans are not following.
Part of the reason scholars and activists have believed that low-income households choose junk food over fresh fish and vegetables is that a lot of poor neighborhoods lack access to anything fresh and wholesome. Mott Haven and Port Morris have long been labeled “food deserts,” places where the glow of fast-food signs light up the night streets but healthier restaurants and grocery stores are hard, or impossible, for families to find. In recent years, there has been a coordinated city effort at the federal, state, and local levels to change this scenario.
Yet, in an uncomfortable irony, amid the effort to bring healthier food options to the area, the South Bronx is home to the world’s largest wholesale food distributors, including none other than the Fulton Fish Market, the second biggest fish market on Earth. The Fulton market, which enjoyed a 180-year stint in lower Manhattan, moved to new facilities in the South Bronx in 2005. It distributes across the Eastern seaboard — and its clients include Masa.
Mott Haven and Port Morris have their local seafood restaurants, too, even if they’re far outnumbered by McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts.. At Jay’s Fish Market, which distributes raw fish but also functions as an eat-in restaurant, you can get raw red snapper for $5.99 per pound and a (rather tasty but not healthy) fried bluefish sandwich and French fries for $5.50. There was also Sea Food Kingz, until it went out of business. But the most interesting of the bunch is a sushi joint.
When I found out about Ceetay Asian Fusion, I was first surprised that it even existed and then doubly so that it had 4.5 out of 5 stars (with 178 reviews) on Yelp, so I called them up and scheduled an interview with the owner. Biking there from Brooklyn on a sweltering afternoon in late May, I passed Kappo Masa, scanned their menu (out of my price range), and continued pedaling up Madison Avenue into East Harlem.
The most recent Census data shows that median household income begins to plummet once you get north of the Upper East Side, starting at 96th street. It’s a fact that becomes clear when you begin to see brick public-housing towers rising up into the sky and business-casual white people give way to working-class blacks and Latinos. The thought of what they could do with $2,650 — the cost of a bottle of sake at Kappo Masa — popped into my head, and the world seemed crueler. I continued over the Harlem River.
Ceetay Asian Fusion was created by Amir Chayon in 2012. It’s a small place that seats about 25. When I walked through the door, I asked for the owner; Chayon was standing nearby talking to two men and told me he would be a few minutes, so I sat down and glanced at the menu. Lunch specials started at $9.45. This was my kind of place.
Chayon, 42, seemed to be on a first-name basis with many of his customers: hungry Bronxites of every race and ethnicity. The restaurateur himself is originally from Israel, with piercing blue eyes and an athletic build. On the day we met, he was wearing blue jeans, a purple shirt, a neck-chain, and black sneakers. His journey to the South Bronx began eight years ago when he first arrived in New York City. In Israel, Chayon had been an aspiring actor and paid his bills working in restaurants. Arriving in Manhattan, he scanned a newspaper for jobs and found one as a general manager of a bar and grill in Mott Haven, just a couple of blocks from where Ceetay now stands.
“I didn’t think much about the neighborhood. I couldn’t care less,” he says. “Then I got an apartment here right away. And I started working here. All of a sudden my life is the South Bronx.”
Ceetay sits in the amorphous space where Mott Haven and Port Morris collide. Across the street, amid stylish graffiti, sit a tattoo parlor, a run-down antique shop, and Fordham Gospel Mission, a church with a purple awning that inhabits what used to be a storefront. Two short blocks away from the restaurant on Alexander Avenue are the Mitchel Houses, a public-housing project of 10 imposing brick towers ranging from 17 to 20 stories tall. It’s a complex with a long history of crime and gang-related violence.
I began to think the restaurant was less a symbol of sushi egalitarianism and more a symbol of a neighborhood in the midst of demographic change.
Chayon says in his first years in the neighborhood, he was scared to let his wife walk alone at night. But he was happy living there, especially with his low-rent loft apartment. While managing a bar and befriending the locals, Chayon began to plan his own place. He knew the restaurant business and he knew his neighborhood and he knew creating a place that served strictly sushi would be an economic loser — so he decided on Asian fusion. It’s a business strategy that combines the first sushi bar in the South Bronx with key staples of Americanized Asian cuisine: fried rice, pad thai, chicken tikka masala, and so on. Every morning, Chayon’s supplier brings in fish fresh from the Fulton Fish Market.
Crime, Chayon says, is not as bad as it once was in the South Bronx. And the numbers back him up. The New York Police Department’s 40th precinct, the two square miles at the southern tip of the Bronx that includes Mott Haven, Port Morris, and the Fulton Fish Market, has seen an estimated 70 percent decline in crime since 1990, including an 87 percent decline in murder, a 50 percent decline in assaults, and a 92 percent decline in car thefts. That said, it remains one of the most troubled areas of the city, and, while it is undoubtedly much safer than it was, some of the NYPD’s more optimistic data has, on occasion, come into question.
Chayon admits that people are still afraid at night. But he sees the seeds of economic revitalization. “It’s the next Williamsburg,” he says.
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was once one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. In the 1990s, artists and writers, attracted by cheap rents, created a small colony of first-wave bohemian gentrifiers. Soon after came the trendy businesses and then the young professionals. Before long, it was crowned a hipster capital. Williamsburg is now seeing multi-billion-dollar development, with a new Whole Foods, an Apple Store, and luxury apartment buildings sprouting like giant beanstalks along the East River waterfront.
Chayon sees a similar process beginning on the South Bronx waterfront. “Already the gay community and a lot of artists are moving up here,” he says. I began to think the restaurant was less a symbol of sushi egalitarianism and more a symbol of a neighborhood in the midst of demographic change. Williamsburg got its first sushi restaurant in 1998, once it was already well into the process of gentrification.
While Chayon and I sat chatting, my food arrived. The restaurant has a long list of healthy and affordable food options, including Lentil Soup for $5.95, seaweed salad for $5.50, and a salmon avocado roll for $6.95. After the long bike ride, I decided to splurge on a lunch special that came with two sushi rolls. First came spring rolls served with a shot glass of sweet-and-sour sauce. Their flaky texture was crisp and paired well with the gooey sauce. Next came a surprise — tuna bruschetta, made of crispy rice and potato, guacamole, and spicy tuna. It’s Chayon’s best-selling appetizer, and small wonder. Last came the sushi rolls, salmon avocado, and spicy tuna, which hit the spot on one of the first hot days of an approaching New York summer. At $12.45, this lunch special has to be one of the best sushi deals in town.
Ceetay Asian Fusion is an oasis for South Bronxites who want healthier food options at prices only slightly higher than neighboring fast-food restaurants. But recent studies suggest that the solution to bad eating habits in poor neighborhoods must go deeper than simply bringing healthy options to the area. In 2010, the New York City government experimented with a tax subsidy program to bring supermarkets to poor areas, but a 2015 study deemed it mostly a failure; a new supermarket in the South Bronx neighborhood of Morrisania, just north of Mott Haven, had failed to change local eating habits in any substantial way relative to those in statistically similar neighborhoods. The researchers concluded that simply introducing wholesome food options is not enough to spur behavioral change and that a more concerted effort is needed to make it affordable and enticing. Perhaps that’s where efforts like Ceetay come in: restaurants that can make healthy fish dishes appealing in communities resigned to subpar options.
Chayon, the sushi pioneer of Mott Haven, is now the father of a 10-month-old baby. He and his wife have since moved to Washington Heights, northwest of Ceetay at the top of Manhattan, but his life remains firmly rooted in the South Bronx. Every May 2, his wife’s birthday, they throw a block party for the community with free food and a DJ. Judging by his many stellar Yelp reviews, it’s a community that is growing to love Chayon’s food.
“I never expected to find a place like this here in the S. Bronx … and I live here,” says Steven “IntrepidBronx” B.; “still, the food here is top notch, and merits the attention of the snobbiest foodies.” Steven gave the restaurant five out of five stars. Leslie L., after ordering Ceetay delivery, was beyond happy: “They delivered to the door!!! Not to the lobby … but to the apartment door! To many people that’s normal. But if you live in the South Bronx … that’s effing amazing.” Aida O. simply gushes, “OMG!!! This sushi is great! Nice to know that I can get quality food in my neck of the woods :).”
Ceetay Asian Fusion may or may not change local eating habits — but the city is certainly better with it there.