You would’ve been hard-pressed to simply waltz in and snag a table at Nami Nori four months ago. As three Masa vets unleashed their vision of casual sushi dining, the restaurant quickly rose through the top ranks of New York’s food royalty.
But today, the tiny, once-packed vestibule stands empty, and in lieu of a crowd of excited diners, there are takeout boxes stacked high. Yet some things haven’t changed: The colorful temaki are still delighting first-time guests and day-one devotees alike. And that’s because at this West Village favorite, the takeout stands out.
Nami Nori was just seven months old when it shuttered its doors. In the wake of COVID-19, the restaurant ceased all operations during the month of April. But as May approached, co-owners Lisa Limb, Taka Sakaeda, and Jihan Lee decided it was time to roll out something they had envisioned doing from the restaurant’s very beginning: takeout.
“We had thought about that months before we opened the restaurant,” says Limb, Nami Nori’s managing partner. “We were just so overwhelmed by the number of guests we had dining in, we really didn’t have time to focus on that.”
Back when the restaurant was still under construction, Limb had quit her job as the director of operations at New York’s prestigious omakase counter, Masa, to fully dedicate herself to the development of Nami Nori, in which takeout was always meant to play a prominent part.
“The main issue [was] how to package it in our way, a way that really conveys the same level of attention to detail and specialness that we try to have here at the restaurant itself,” Limb explains.
In its first few weeks of opening, Nami Nori already had a stockpile of custom-made takeout paraphernalia. And by the time the pandemic hit, the restaurant was sitting on a solid takeout model that could help them survive.
“We were in a good place, luckily, compared to a lot of other people who were just really caught off guard and completely had to start from scratch,” says Limb.
If you’ve ordered from Nami Nori, you know: In a sea of takeout options, theirs truly shine. The boxed temaki arrive perfectly encased, sushi-grade fish brilliantly displayed. The enveloping nori sheets remain crisp in their very own wrappers, and an illustrated manual guides diners on how to unwrap them. One bite in and you’ll happily realize: This is food that was always meant to travel. That’s how Limb and her partners designed the menu early on, and the reason why it has barely changed from dine-in to delivery.
But if you look beyond the food, you’ll notice that something else was given mighty attention: the packaging. Aside from it being tailored to the numerous food items, all of it is either compostable, biodegradable, or made out of recycled plastics, something Limb felt very strongly about.
“The amount of packaging required is really eye-opening. It’s actually very difficult to source eco-friendly packaging, even today, which, to me, is shocking. It should be the norm,” says Limb. “The hoops we had to jump through to get those little [nori] wrappers made, is just crazy.”
Limb called more than 10 different companies trying to find someone that could make them on her terms. Finally, she was able to find a manufacturer that made them out of PLA, a plant-based cellophane. But Limb wants to see a real shift towards more environmentally-friendly options, not just holding her own restaurant accountable, but others, too.
“As restaurateurs, we really need to start talking about it and creating the demand,” says Limb. “Especially right now, when everybody is doing takeout and delivery.”
Still, having a menu designed for travel and packaging at the ready didn’t ensure a smooth transition to a takeout-only model. During the first week, the restaurant almost ran out of everything. In the pre-COVID days, the number of seats and table turns controlled how much production was needed to feed guests. And what happens when one of the city’s most sought-after restaurants becomes available to anyone with a phone? You get booked in an entirely new way.
“We really had no idea [of] the supply we’d need to get through a few days of just doing takeout and delivery,” says Limb. “We just [got] an overwhelming amount of numbers. I was laughing about how we still get the most orders on Friday and Saturday night. Which is so funny, because it’s like, do people still have a weekend?”
Despite going through trials and errors and missing interacting with guests, Limb says she’s immensely grateful to the New Yorkers who’ve come out in droves to show support. Evolving past the dining room has allowed the restaurant to become available to so many more new diners throughout the city.
“[Many] have mentioned that they have tried to get into the restaurant, couldn’t get a reservation, and now are super excited that they can come and eat our food,” says Limb. “So that was one thing that, despite all of this, was such a positive thing for us.”
This week (June 29-July 5), the special at Nami Nori is as follows:
Seven Layer Salmon Dip ($39, serves four)
Seven Layer Salmon Dip with salmon sashimi, ikura, red onion, creme fraiche, egg white, egg yolk and chives, served with housemade nori chips.
Toro Caviar Dip ($39, serves two)
Toro Caviar Dip with toro, kaluga caviar, creme fraiche and chives, served with housemade nori chips.