Beyond Downtown: NYC’s Beyond Sushi Rolls into Midtown Manhattan Today
As if New York City residents weren’t spoiled enough with our seemingly endless list of dining options, today marks the grand opening of vegan eatery Beyond Sushi’s third location on our tiny island. Midtown dwellers can now fulfill their lunch (and dinner) needs with nuanced black rice rolls, unique individual pieces and — this author’s personal favorite — the complex Nutty Buddy. Don’t know what that is? For goodness sakes, dear reader, get thee to an online menu or, better yet, one of Beyond Sushi’s three brick-and-mortar grab ‘n’ go restos. Stat. Needless to say, it’s the wrap that launched a thousand pickup orders.
Comfortable for the past two years holding court in just two downtown neighborhoods, Beyond Sushi’s success on East 14th and West 15th Streets prompted owners Guy and Tali Vaknin to give the mid-50s between Fifth and Sixth Avenues a shot. After all, it’s a bustling area, swarming with professionals, tourists and one writer who will remain nameless getting her spine realigned right. across. the. street. at Carnegie Chiropractic. (Thank you, Dr. Jason Gordon, for establishing your practice a mere stone’s throw from where this crowd-pleasing place would eventually — today! — end up.)
And don’t for a moment imagine it’s solely plant-based devotees keeping Beyond Sushi busy. Oh no. According to Guy, at least 80–90% of their patrons aren’t even vegan. They’re average meat-eating folks, slaves to great flavor that can’t resist a delectable midday meal, which also happens to be healthy, satisfying and sustainable. And who could blame them? While Guy attests to the fact that vegans comprised the bulk of initial supporters in 2012, with the exponential rise in popularity, the omnis have caught on and thus (happily) diluted Beyond Sushi’s strong following of veg heads. Translation: This is a good thing. The more the merrier, right?
Ecorazzi caught up with the man behind the magic, a cruelty-free sushi savant originally from Israel who once competed on season 10 of Chef Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. The father to-be (two weeks away!) discusses Beyond Sushi’s origin story, why for the last year-and-a-half he’s been a most dedicated vegan, Midtown West’s appeal and what’s next. Hint: It involves opening more plant-based sushi shops.
What compelled you to open Beyond Sushi in the first place?
I worked at a catering company and, because it was kosher, I needed to offer something vegetarian. I came up with black rice sushi [using] whatever vegetables we had in the kitchen. I saw the enthusiastic reaction and decided to work on this. We tried it in other markets, like yoga studios and gyms, and then our first vegetarian food festival in 2010. I felt it would be a good business. I took two years, put [rolls] together with sauces, and came up with a menu.
It started out vegetarian; we had a few egg products. Three weeks after opening, I changed it to 100% vegan after my customers requested [it]. I became vegan myself. It changed my life completely. It became part of my lifestyle. I wasn’t even vegetarian! Now I am fully vegan. I am very into it.
Why are you vegan?
After I opened the restaurant and heard requests from customers to make it vegan, I realized I was ignorant about this industry. I sat down and learned, What am I doing? I like to watch documentaries. That’s one of my hobbies. And I’ve seen all the documentaries about veganism — Forks Over Knives, Earthlings, etcetera. I felt like it was something I should try. It felt great. It really inspired me. Slowly I learned more and more. It just felt right.
Has anyone ever said to you that they miss the fish?
Everybody that comes in is usually skeptical. But, once they taste it, it all goes away. The most popular roll in the U.S. is the California roll; it has no raw fish in it. It has cooked crabmeat. I created something different. For me, as a chef, it’s a perfect food item. Each time you bite into it, the consistency of the flavors is going to be the same. I cannot go wrong with it. That was the whole thinking behind the menu. Just serve great food. And for us it’s vegan.
Where do you draw inspiration for your creations?
I like to cook for myself. Usually whatever is tasty for me is going on the menu. We have the Union Square farmers market close to us. I use it to my advantage. I see what’s fresh, local, seasonal, on stands and available. [This also informs our roll of the month.]
How do you make the aioli that accompanies some of the rolls?
Silken tofu with grape seed oil and a little bit of vinegar. That’s the base. From there we add flavors.
So, for this spankin’ new spot, what drew you to the neighborhood?
We’ve done really well on 14th Street and in Chelsea Market. Things were going really great and they’re still going that way. But it’s time to go to a big market. Midtown was always something I looked at and said, Okay, this is where real things happen. So, I felt that, for us to really get acknowledged, we needed to do something in the heart of the city. I picked that area because of the lunch crowd over there. People more and more acknowledge this is an option. It doesn’t have to have raw tuna filled with mercury to taste good. We don’t have to destroy our ecosystem just to have food. And that’s what it’s about. We proved there’s a market. It’s the right time to take the next step.
Where else do you enjoy eating in the city?
Blossom on 23rd and 9th is the highlight for me. I ate the best vegan meal there. But I also have a very close friend of the family, Tal Ronen, that I grew up with. My grandma basically raised him. I’ve had Tal’s food in L.A. at Crossroads and it beats everybody. I get so inspired by him. He’s great. He’s doing amazing stuff. I think this is the future.
Have any celebrities that you know of frequented your establishments?
I’m not a big celebrity person, but we’ve seen a bunch of them come in. Jake Gyllenhaal was in our Chelsea location a few times.
Has Gordon Ramsay had it?
He hasn’t. It’s okay if he has, if he doesn’t. Hopefully one day big Gordon Ramsay can say that vegetables taste good. I don’t know. I have my thoughts about Gordon Ramsay.
Last but not least, can we expect more locations down the line?
Do I have plans to expand? Yes. Do I want more locations? Yes. When? It’s a mystery. I don’t know yet. This was a big leap. The next step will come. It usually takes me about a year to wrap my head around it and get everything together. But, if the demand keeps growing, we’ll keep doing it. I believe that it will. This is where everybody will go eventually, it’s just a matter of time. Animal products should not be on the menu at all. That’s my belief.
Visit the latest location of Beyond Sushi starting today: Beyond Sushi Midtown West • 62 West 56th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues) • 646.964.1117 • Weekdays 10 AM – 8 PM + Weekends 11 AM – 8 PM • Online ordering for pickup is available, but delivery service not yet set up.
Photo credit (restaurant): Thao Bui
Photo credit (couple): Natalie Chitwood