Unheavenly Sent From Above

In food, restaurant on 02/20/2009 at 7:56 pm

A new development in the hotbed of NYC culinary culture has been the arrival of izakayas. I like to think of them as cousins of tapas bars. But the focus is more on the drink, the food is an afterthought. Wait, that can’t be possible, it’s the Japanese we’re talking about, the ones who fetish-ize everything, especially food. Every morsel should be perfect, the highest quality, as if a gift from heaven, right?

We were ambling along the food desert between the Meatpacking district and Hell’s Kitchen when our grumbling stomachs beckoned us away from the epileptic lights of the Empire Diner and towards the soothing, orange-ish glow of the izakaya paper lantern at Ten, one of the gastropubs that has gotten raves as being representative of the cutting edge of modern Japanese nightlife culture. The kanji is the Chinese word for “sky,” but I’m sure it’s more about being under the banner of heaven or something poetic like that.

We peered through the one giant window and saw darkness, bits of hanging twigs shaped into a solar system-esque interior. We shrugged our shoulders and walked in, soaking in the ambience. As a bar, it was cozy, with wooden bench booths along both walls. Flickering candlelight added to the romance. A large Uniqlo-milled mural of traditional Japanese life adorned one long wall. But when you get hungry you had better be drunk.

One look at the menu and I should have known how bad things were going to get. “Authentic” was emblazoned across the bottom, definitely a bad sign. Then, queries about various dishes yielded ambivalent responses from the ABJ (American-born Japanese) staff, another bad sign. They directed me to the yakitori. If meat skewers are the best you can proffer, then you might as well not order anything at all, at least, in my experience.

We finally settled on the recommended pork belly with scallions, a fried squid legs appetizer, and a special not on the menu, broiled yellowtail collar. We paired the dishes with a sweet, mild and milky nigori (the only good part of this meal). When the pork belly appeared, I almost laughed. It reminded me of those cast iron numbers you get at Planet Hollywood, all pomp and no circumstance. The dish was the sorriest joke of a stir fry with bean sprouts I’d every had, worse than Chinese take-out, salty as all get-out too. The fried squid was rubbery and encased in hard batter. The collar, which came out well after we’d finished the other dishes, was too thick and flavorless. You’d think if they were broiling it, there would be a nice caramelized crust, but the flesh had the texture of a mealy apple. I hate it when my belly is full but not happy.

Our resident izakaya-ist pontificates:

Q: What is an izakaya and how did Ten not live up to the island model?

A: The ones I’ve been to in Japan place less emphasis on decor and more emphasis on good drink and hot, fast, food. The flavors of the izakaya are bolder and heartier. Izakaya Ten floundered in all respects, except for ambience. They would be better off having a menu of true tapas, not lulling people into thinking they were getting real entreés.

Q: Why do restaurants feel the need to Americanize flavors?

A: That is the great unanswered question of ethnic cuisine. It’s possible they feel they’ll get better response if the flavors are ‘acceptable’ to the American palate. But that’s not always true. I crave the more subtle and complex flavors that are found in Japanese cooking. When I go to a place billed as ‘authentic,’ or one that is trying to introduce a new aspect of a culture, I want to try something new, a different combination of flavors of textures that I wouldn’t get anywhere else. Thank god it’s very difficult to screw up sake that comes straight from an imported bottle.

Q: What’s worse than getting cranky from an unhappy belly?

A: ……..

not heaven

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