The knives are out in Melville.
Specifically, they're ultrasharp blades slicing uncooked fish at a fast pace. The sushi showdown has started. And within a mile of each other, four major restaurants are battling along Route 110.
So far, the victor is you.
Be-Ju Sashimi & Sake Bar and Nisen 110 are the new eateries to join the fray; Blackstone Steakhouse and Cirella's are the long-established ones, each appealing to a broad audience, but with different styles and prices.
"It really comes down to supply and demand," said Michael DeLuise, president of the Melville Chamber of Commerce. "And right now, sushi is in demand. . . . There has to be a limit, but we're not near it yet."
At lunch, all four Melville restaurants are usually jammed, primarily with diners on business, office workers, or both. The quartet is packed most nights, too, for social gatherings as well as business meetings. Blackstone is the most expensive, often reaching $100 or more a person; Cirella's, the most modest, with an average tab of about $30.
Restaurateur Tom Schaudel, whose Be-Ju is situated within his Jewel restaurant, said sushi "is mainstream now."
As for the competitive threesome nearby, he adds: "Overcrowding is a luxury problem."
The appeal of sushi, Schaudel said, is, in part, its freshness and healthful image. It's also "a generational thing," he said, noting the prospect of raw fish would not necessarily lure some older diners, "but my daughter has been eating it since she was 4."
Tom Lam, co-owner of Nisen 110, predicts sushi "absolutely will continue to be popular." Lam, a sushi chef himself, said the decision to open in Melville wasn't affected by the level of competition. "Our sushi quality goes anywhere." There are Nisen branches in St. James and Commack, too.
"People are eating healthy. . . . It's a good trend," said Dodo Tecusan, general manager of Blackstone Steakhouse, which presaged the Route 110 sushi streak when it opened nine years ago, with a sushi bar situated a chopstick away from the main dining room's sizzle.
Tecusan said that sushi steadily accounts for 12 to 15 percent of orders at Blackstone, providing an alternative for diners not primed for red meat unless it's tuna.
The percentage is up to 25 percent at Cirella's, a primarily Italian restaurant that also offers a sushi menu. "We hope to get it up to 50 percent," said owner Dean Cirella.
He got the idea when, traveling in Napa Valley, he entered a gas station and found a sushi counter there. The sushi menu started in 2004 at the Cirella's in Saks Fifth Avenue at Walt Whitman Shops, and expanded to the Cirella's separate restaurant three years ago.
Here's a look at the four Route 110 challengers.
This is first Japanese restaurant on Long Island to earn four stars.
Purists must go for the rich, exceptional o-toro and chu toro, or fatty and medium-fatty tuna, and the assorted raw fish. In addition to traditional sashimi and sushi, chefs Shigeki Uchiyama and Hiroki Tanii prepare showstopper, pate-style discs of steamed monkfish liver with sea urchin and ponzu sauce; shrimp-and-sea urchin risotto; and tuna tataki finished with a shaving of black truffle. And Be-Ju is populist enough to offer a spicy tuna roll because of demand. It's one that highlights the taste of the fish.
Nisen 110, all sleek and modernist, balances traditional sushi choices and the out-there, rolls-of-the-moment, including the very spicy "monkey jump." Chef Zeman Chen, trained by Nisen owner Tom Lam, is equally skilled at both. The glistening sashimi and nirgizushi are best, led by bluefin tuna and live sea urchin. But you can go rogue with appetizers such as flavorful beef sliders with yuzu ketchup, mustard-cream aioli and spicy aioli; a lobster taco; and fried oysters with garlic-butter sauce before returning to the standbys such as the fanned-out yellowtail jalapeno and fatty tuna in almost any guise.
3. Blackstone Steakhouse, 10 Pinelawn Rd.
The sushi bar at Blackstone is a feast, visually and edibly, under veteran chef Yukio Hasui, who mastered sushi in Japan and the now-closed Kiiroi Hana in Manhattan before opening the bar here. He creates artful sushi and sashimi samplers that emphasize subtle, inviting marine flavors. And Hasui puts together some luxurious house rolls. The union of stone crab and lobster, wrapped in rice paper and accented with mustard sauce, is a high-priced knockout; another with spicy lobster and Kobe beef, almost tongue-in-cheek surf-and-turf. The more familiar rolls also are excellent. And the shrimp makes an outstanding version of the appetizer cocktail staple. You can order a California roll or a tuna roll, but they're not the reason to eat here.
4. Cirella's, 14 Broadhollow Rd., Melville
After an Italian opener of, say, creamy burrata cheese or crisp fried calamari, pizza Margherita or seafood salad, you could have very good sushi here, starting with samplers of nigirizushi, or the familiar raw fish on ovals of vinegared rice. Chef Joe Cho, with 14 years of experience preparing sushi in Manhattan and on Long Island, also offers dependably tasty yellowtail with jalapeno, salmon carpaccio and "house design" rolls with ingredients raw or cooked. Prices are reasonable; the service, friendly; the results, satisfying for all ages.