We Tried It: Zauo, NYC's New Fishing Restaurant
Japan's latest import invites guests to catch their own dinner *inside* the restaurant. I couldn't wait to get schooled – and planned on getting hooked.
I peered into the water and I set my eyes on my fish. There were so many, I knew it was going to be a successful trip. I swished my pole around the water, but as much as I wanted to get my prize, I didn't want it to happen too fast – I hungered for the thrill of the chase. As I dragged my line past a bunch of fish, I felt one bump of one on my hook, but I lost it. It was a Fluke — no really, it was that kind of fish! It happened again. Suddenly I started to feel like Ishmael and Moby Dick, this was my life's mission. And then, boom! One hit the hook and I proudly pulled him up with barely a struggle as one of the waitresses scooped him up with a net.
That's right, I wasn't in the great outdoors, instead I was fishing for my dinner inside Zauo, the Japanese restaurant where you catch your own meal. Launched in Japan in 1993, the kitschy concept started as a way to set the place apart from other seafood restaurants in a family-friendly way and has since grown to 13 restaurants across Japan. The NYC outpost is its first in the United States.
I headed there shortly after it opened with my colleague Grace Rasmus, who runs the @rachaelraymag Instagram account – I mean, this place is Instagram gold. I also actually like fishing for real, so I was excited to try this place. I'm no stranger to using my own pink fishing pole to catch my supper from a stream and cook it up over a roaring campfire.
Upon entering the restaurant, we were greeted with an enthusiastic "Irasshaimase!" from the staff, which means "welcome" in Japanese. Once seated, we took in the cavernous space and three levels of seating. Three pools across the first and third floors contained peacefully swimming fish. The bottom of a ship's hull hangs from the ceiling; lights are encased in lobster traps to give you that nautical vibe. The super friendly waitstaff brings over all the information you need, including menus, details about the fish, a map of the pools, tips on fishing and more. There was a lot of reading material!
Next came an "application" for a fishing license ("Don't worry, everyone gets approved," our waiter reassured us), the presentation of the badge to wear around your neck and the green light to head to the fish! Thinking that the type of fish was left up to chance, I wondered how Zauo would handle picky eaters. But fear not, the fish are separated by type, so you'll know exactly what you're getting.
Grace and I decided to go for the fluke and rainbow trout. But I wouldn't necessarily do that again; the fluke are very stationary and a little boring in the tank. When I went fishing, I felt like I needed to tap one so he had the chance to put up a fair fight. On the other hand, the trout gave you more of that full-on fishing experience, complete with a good splash of water—or maybe something else. The restaurant has a disclaimer that you might get splashed with fish blood, so leave your squeamish friends at home.
To celebrate your catch, the staff yells out a "Congratulations!" and bangs a drum to prep for a "tejime," or a traditional Japanese hand clapping. The style here is an Itchō-jime, where there is just one big clap. (Consider this your heads up so you don't keep clapping like this unrhythmic fisherwoman might have done. Twice.)
Your prized catch is placed in a basket and carted off to the kitchen. You have your choice of preparations from sashimi, tempura, salt grilled and simmered in soy sauce. We chose the "half and half" for each fish so we could see both prepared two ways—sashimi and soy sauce simmered for the fluke and sashimi and salt grilled for the trout. Presentation was beautiful with the whole fish artfully decorating the plates; and aesthetics aside, everything was delicious. I can honestly say I've never had sashimi this fresh. When you're done, you have the option of deep frying the bones or using them to prepare a miso soup broth so there's no waste. After spending my life slightly terrified of and avoiding fish bones, it was a pleasant surprise to turn them into something akin to potato chips — a wonderful crispy, salty and tasty snack!
Rainbow Trout Sashimi
Salt-grilled Rainbow Trout
Fried fluke bones
I have to admit, I'm a sucker for a good gimmick, but I'm even more enthusiastic when there's something more behind it. Not only is this restaurant fun and perfect for an outing with friends, its family friendly environment also aims to teach children about where their food comes from, closing the gap between unidentifiable prepackaged items from the grocery store to the reality of eating a living thing along topped off with the respect of not wasting it. And that's no fluke.