Saturday, January 15, 1994
Leisure, Page 20, Edition(s) 2
By Joshua Shapiro, New York Times Service

In New York, the Ultimate in Sushi Bars: It Seats 5


By Joshua Shapiro

New York Times Service

Just below its signature Chippendale-style pediment, the top floor of the 35-floor Sony building at Madison Avenue and 56th Street houses a tiny hideaway that is both the pride and a possible concern of Sony.
  When Sony moved into the former AT&T headquarters building in 1992 and remodeled it for 1,400 employees of Sony Music Entertainment, it made only cosmetic changes in the executive dining spaces and meeting rooms on the top floor that are now collectively known as the Sony Club. The area, with elaborate mahogany and marble, is a rarefied haven where executives and their guests eat, schmooze and conduct business while looking out on stunning vistas of Manhattan.
  But in the windowless core of the building, Sony has created what may be the most elegant deal-making space in the United States, a sushi bar with only five seats (in Japan, a set of four is considered unlucky), built at a cost of $250,000, according to Richard Bloch of YuiBloch Design, the designers of the renovation.
  Turning the 17-by-34-foot (5-by-10-meter) space into a miniature Japanese universe was the inspiration of Barry Wine, the former owner and chef of the Quilted Giraffe restaurant who is overseeing all of Sony's food operations.
  "To work, the place had to be sophisticated, for people who appreciate quality of design and construction," he said. "It had to be modern but not outrageous. And it had to be comfortable enough for a manager of a rock group to sit next to the managers in suits and ties from the electronic business."
  To meet these requirements, Wine drew on a crosscultural background. His Quilted Giraffe, which was situated in the building's street-level arcade, started with American cuisine and evolved into a Japanese influence as a result of his annual travels to Japan.
  With a wealth of custom detail, the simple sushi bar space cost more than $500 a square foot, nearly twice what industry experts say a commercial upscale restaurant might budget. Bloch said the goal was a cosmopolitan space with Japanese sensibilities, using color, texture, lighting, sound and even smell to create a sense of shibui (literally "astringent" as in the taste of persimmon, meaning austere but rich in feeling).
  The designers favored natural materials and a limited palette of restful grays and greens. At the entrance step, a row of pale-green straw tatami mats give the room a smell of grass. The walls are paneled with traditional hand-loomed Indian cotton, stretched over wood and sound- absorbent batting.
  The wall trim and dado, the lower part of the wall, are glossy gray-green urushi, natural Japanese lacquer derived from tree sap. The lacquer was applied to sheets of ceramic instead of wood, which cycles of dry winters and humid summers in New York would warp and distort.
  The black, bowed granite sushi counter is the recycled Quilted Giraffe bar, and a tiny river flows through pebbles in a shallow channel separating the diners from the chef's worktop. Each chair at the bar is upholstered in a different color, "to confer a greater importance and individuality to its occupant," Bloch said.
  Everything has been measured, ordered and controlled - even the publicity. Perhaps because the new space doesn't fit the egalitarian image of Japanese corporations, where employees wear uniforms and share the same cafeterias, a company spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions about it. "It is for internal use only," said Sue Satriano, Sony's director of media relations.