Having irrationally concluded that Manhattan restaurants located on major east-west thoroughfares offer substandard fare, I initially dismissed Ushi Wakamaru as just another takeout joint I might order from once, be immediately disappointed in, then thereafter ignore entirely. The downstairs space has nothing to recommend it, style-wise: Painted institutional green, lit harshly and looking every bit like a discount nail salon, it's outshone by better-designed neighbors Tomoe Sushi, Yama and even Koo Sushi. But Ushi Wakamaru far outclasses all of those restaurants and is on par with the finest Japanese eateries in the city. In fact, chef Hideo Kuribara's food is so good he could be serving it from a hot-dog cart inside a Penn Station barbershop and still earn a loyal following. The menu (which just recently expanded to include English explanations of the Japanese specials) includes plenty of funky fish, which make great raw eating: Among the must-tries are sayori (needlefish), kinme (a fatty sort of red snapper) and the anago (tenderly cooked baby sea eel that here achieves about the same level of wonderful as that dish does at Blue Ribbon Sushi). Appetizers like the herring-roe cake, peeled eggplant soup, and the enoki mushroom and sake-marinated scallops (which arrive Flintstones-style, cooking in a clamshell on top of their own tabletop stone barbecue) look fascinating and taste even better. But stick with the sushi specials, and you'll see what I mean. 136 W. Houston St., (212) 228-4181. Jonathan Durbin

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