“It was always the idea of secret sushi,” says chef Daniel Boulud about how he ended up opening an omakase counter hidden inside Grand Central Terminal. Together with chef George Ruan, formerly of Masa, they’ve debuted Joji, a new sushi experience in a hidden alcove below One Vanderbilt in New York.
The idea came about three years ago, Boulud says, as he was in the process of constructing his upscale French restaurant Le Pavillon, also located at One Vanderbilt.
“I always loved the possibility of doing a unique Japanese sushi restaurant,” he says. “We were planning to do it on the second floor where Le Pavillon is, at the back toward the kitchen, but as the idea grew and the design started to take form a little bit, we came to the idea of maybe using a space down in the Grand Central level, that could be perfect for a secret sushi place.”
Joji’s location inside the bustling travel hub is a nod to the prevalence of many high-end sushi counters located inside train stations in Japan.
“We want the place to feel like a Tokyo in New York experience, not a Tokyo in Tokyo experience. It’s a little more of a New York vibe, with a Tokyo sushi experience. We created a rock garden leading to this sanctuary in Grand Central station, and this is really in the tradition of having a fine dining sushi experience in the busiest train station in Tokyo,” Boulud says. “This is a reference and reverence to this tradition. The high commuter area with high density of office workers and also a high density of tourists also makes it quite unique.”
There’s also a level of accessibility to Joji that they were going for, seen in the Joji Box, which is a to-go omakase experience. Boulud envisions commuters picking up a box on their way from the office to their train to enjoy at home, or having some delivered to their desk for a mid-work day meal.
Ruan teamed with Boulud during the pandemic, when he’d taken time off from Masa and was doing some home cooking for the restaurant’s regulars. Now at Joji, he emphasizes the lack of pretension that they say sets them apart from other omakase places.
“We don’t want the room, the space, the service, the atmosphere to be stuffy,” Ruan says. “We’re trying to have every guest dining here have a great time, like they’re dining at their friend’s house. They don’t have to be afraid to ask questions.”
Another Joji perk? Return diners will get a personalized experience.
“If they’ve dined at Joji and had a great time, we will change their menu based on what they had last time,” Ruan says.
“Each omakase place has their own experience, and we are definitely one of the finest counters in that category,” Boulud says.