At least in my opinion... New York is fortunate to have a sizable Japanese expat community -- and real deal restaurants to serve them. I'm talking about Japanese cuisine beyond sushi, which is just a tiny part of the food culture there, despite its popularity here. Many friends ask me to recommend Japanese joints in the big city, so here I go: Check out the half-dozen restaurants below (listed alphabetically) to discover a world of Japanese cooking from sophisticated cuisine to tapas-like pub food to home style chow. And what about your favorite places? Any Japanese restaurants you want to add? (And not just in New York) Please share your thoughts in the comments!
Aburiya Kinnosuke, 213 E 45th Street, 212-867-5454
What I love about this restaurant is that it feels like stepping into a smart and stylish spot in Tokyo. And then there's the cooking: Aburiya specializes in robata grilling, where meat and fish are skewered and stood upright to slowly caramelize before a neat tower of red-hot Japanese charcoal. Chef Jiro Iida compliments his grilling with a slew of seasonal dishes he prepares in an open kitchen behind a dining counter (which is where you should sit). Besides any and all sublime grilled fish, make sure to try the tsukune, robata-grilled chicken meatball and yakisoba, fried soba noodles with pork in a delicious broth.
En Japanese Brasserie, 435 Hudson Street, 212-647-9196
My friend Reika Yo's restaurant is a hip and beautiful downtown place that serves a sophisticated take on izakaya cooking, the Japanese pub-style dining that centers on a procession of small plates. Chef Honma's knocks out fantastic dishes. Some of my favorites: red perch simmered in soy sauce, natto and ground pork wrapped in lettuce and soy milk hotpot with slices of Kobe beef (outstanding). Also, you must, repeat, must try the freshly made tofu and tofu skin. If you've never tasted real tofu, not the packaged stuff from stores, it's a life-altering experience. Really.
Matsuri, 363 West 16th Street, 212-242-4300
This is the amazing restaurant in whose kitchen I volunteer every week under the tutelage of my friend Chef Tadashi Ono. Chef Ono's deep, deep passion for Japanese cuisine is reflected in his cooking, an incredible seasonal menu with ingredients flown in daily from Japan, from fresh fish to wagyu beef. Try the black cod cured in sakekasu (sake lees), grilled yellowtail collar, duck, octopus sashimi, sakura ebi tempura (tiny seasonal pink shrimp) and on an on. "Matsuri" means festival in Japanese and the restaurant lives up to its name: A cool crowd dining in a huge and dramatic subterranean space with massive paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
Riki, 141 East 45th Street, 212-986-1109
Many authentic Japanese restaurants in New York are clustered in the East 40s not far from the United Nations. Why? Well, guess where most offices of the Japanese multinational companies are located? Riki, for instance, is directly across the street from the US headquarters of the trading giant Itochu. It's a down and dirty izakaya that's open late, late (I think until 4am), filled with Japanese office workers knocking back nama biru ("raw" beer, or draft) and plate after tapas-style plate of seasonal comfort food. Ask your server to translate the daily menu they have written on the back of their order pads. The food is terrific. I especially enjoy the Japanafied Western dishes, like "om rice" -- rice mixed with ketchup and wrapped in a crepe-like omelet (!). Sit back and soak up the scene, especially the boisterous "salarymen" in the midst of an enkai, or drinking party.
Sakagura, 211 East 43rd Street, 212-953-7253
Hidden in the basement of a nondescript office building, Sakagura has a long bar running the length of the restaurant, and behind it, rows and rows of sake bottles -- it boasts one of largest sake collections in America. ("Sakagura" means sake brewery in Japanese) Ask my friend Chizuko, their talented sake sommelier, to help you navigate their notebook-sized sake list and find one or two or three for you. Chizuko hails from the heart of Akita sake country and has an amazing knowledge and palette. Sakagura serves a extensive, sophisticated dinner menu of small plates to compliment their sake, include pristine sashimi. Lunch is also a treat, by the way, when Sakagura offers a menu of soba dishes, all with authentic hand rolled and cut noodles.
Tsukushi, 300 East 41st Street, 212-599-8888
Push open a plain black door on sleepy sidestreet enter another restaurant that seems directly transported from Japan: Tsukushi is small, unadorned, brightly and as real as it gets. This place specializes in katei-ryori, home style cooking. There's no menu here; instead the Chef Manabe serves his cooking omakase -- his choice -- a procession of delicious seasonal dishes. They're wonderfully homey and simple, simmered ingredients, stews, grilled fish and sashimi. On my last visit there, this past winter, the chef treated me and my girlfriend to hearty and comforting bowls of motsunabe, tripe hotpot. Talk about soul food! And after 10pm (Tsukushi is open until at least 2am, I believe -- it's an afterwork hangout for Japanese chefs), you can order authentic shoyu ramen, soy sauce ramen, easily the best ramen in New York.