Lil’ Tokyo via Seoul

In food, restaurant on 08/02/2009 at 9:15 am

Freedom! Time to roam the city. On Friday, we were invited by our sake friend to the preview of a new restaurant in the LES, aka Lil’ Tokyo. The Japanese food revolution has really overtaken that whole neighborhood, from dingy authentic ramen shops to Americanized anime-meets-manga modern establishments. May Chan Ramen and Robatayaki is one of the latter.

Since it takes at least six months for a new place to find its flow and customer preferences, we’ll be gentle. Here’s the storefront on the NE corner of 7th/2nd Ave, right next door to May’s other joint, an all-you-can-eat sushi hangout. She is all about décor that will attract a hip young audience. It’s purty.

it was pouring, so this shot sucks

The storefront reminds me of a glammed up Teriyaki Boy-type place, the cartoonish font promising ‘fun’ and exciting bowls of deliciousness that are not too pricey. May is riding the current trend of places that offer grilled items to pair with beverage. The concept seems to be primarily a sake bar that offers more upscale Japanese pub type food. But since May is Korean, she’s thrown some common dishes from that cuisine in too. This place should attract young people who would get lost in old skool Koreatown and want to be seen in a hip ‘hood.

our viewpoint, along the kitchen

This is the counter, which signals ‘sushi’, but they actually don’t offer any since they are billed as a ramen place. It’s really more like a souped up Asian diner. Everything is cooked, either offered hot or cold. There isn’t a chef per se, most of the staff manning the grill or stove was young, more on the level of short order than haute cuisine.

curvy goodness

Across from the counter there are long tables and benches flanked by sake label murals. It has a chic look, graceful and spare. This place reeks ambience a la Queen Crossing Mall in Flushing except without the neon (you know, an Asian’s idea of modern cool, i.e. lots of backlighting).

convenient sake storage

One nod to the medieval: this massive sake chandelier hanging near the front of the restaurant. This flourish completes the West Elm chunky wooden decor. Onto the food. Okay, the caveat for those places that focus on the ‘look’ is while they please the eye, they forget to also please the palate.

Our sake friend meticulously wrote down notes of our opinions about the various dishes we sampled throughout the night. I was feeling quite John Mariani all of a sudden. Ah, if only. After we’d be there for an hour or so, other guests started trickling in, despite the massive thunderstorm. The place started to rock (or was it the cacaphonous American 90’s pop music in the background?), especially when you serve beer in giant gold teakettles.

tea kettles for adults

Why have beer when there’s premium sake? The sommelier used to work for Sakagura so he knows his stuff. There’s about 8 to choose from; we deferred to the sake friend to pick: Oyahji Gokuraku Jungin (black label) and Kitaro Jungin (white label), both featuring artwork in a series from a famous manga artist. These are collectibles typically sold as ‘one cups’ from vending machines in Japan. So, apparently, restaurants upsell at least double the retail price.

double-fisted sake heaven

Both sakes were extremely complex and delicious. Our resident sake expert explains:

Q: What did you like about the sake?

A: The white label one was a light sake, very easy to drink, soft mouth feel. But it had more interesting flavors (cucumber, light and refreshing) than those of the same category. As it warmed up in the hand, the flavors bloomed and there were more levels of harmonious notes. The black label one is a little spicy (black pepper), more energetic on the palate, but not overpowering. It hits the tongue hard in the middle, but if you swirl it around your mouth, you get the full range of the peaches blossoming.

ganja juice

Q: How about this one in the square glass on top of a marijuana leaf?

A: Oh, that’s supposed to be a Japanese maple leaf. I liked the presentation, though it’s trendy, kinda kitsch and cute. It wasn’t a bad sake, but it was like drinking Bud Light after drinking two really nice microbrews. Definitely more one note. It would have been fine to start with, a beginner’s sake, but still better than the junk you get at cheap/all-you-can-eat-sushi places. It’s not harsh, just kind of boring. All the sakes there $14, so I would just order the two above. My tip for ordering sake is to look at the volume. Get the one with less volume for the same price.

kiddie pleasin' menu

The menu is printed with big fancy pictures, but the descriptions were either a little foreign-born translated or only comprehensible to native eaters of the cuisine. Featured on the grill is an assortment of vegetables, of which ‘paprika’ is one. We know paprika as a red powder, but supposedly in Asian marts it is also known as red bell pepper. As for one of the listed appetizers, gyu shu, it is May’s twist on the Cantonese char siu, but with beef instead.

cold fish

The first two dishes we tried were a ratatouille and a plate of edamame, both served room temperature, which was a little off-putting for the former, but norm for the latter. If you don’t like bell peppers, I wouldn’t recommend it.

amazin' salt crystals

The edamame was typical, but featured some fantastic non-saline-tasting flat granules of salt. Our sake friend said they really splurged on this umami salt, reminiscent of seaweed more than the kosher stuff we’re used to. Behind that plate is a pulled chicken cole slaw with yet more julienne of red bell pepper, cucumber and cabbage in a light vinegary marinade. Maybe May should change the name of this place to Lil’ Paprika. This plate was not very distinctive, the colors didn’t pop and the slices of veggies weren’t the proper thickness to take advantage of the crunch of the cucumber. The cabbage was overly thick.

spears and sauce

Since everyone by now is familiar with skewered meats, to base a restaurant on grilled small items is quite smart. May even splurged on the more ergonomic wooden skewer, with a bigger end to hold onto the meat bits. It was an eye-and-tongue pleasing assorted platter, of mostly chicken and pig parts, with three dipping ‘sauces’: umami salt, cod roe + Kewpie mayo, and Korean chili paste. My favorite is the cod roe sauce, which is similar to the Greek taramosalata, but milder. I kept eating that by itself. The most unique skewers were an oblong chicken meatball and wavy pieces of crispy pork skin. There was also a flattened chicken wing, bone-in. You could conceivably order an offal-only plate with chicken hearts, gizzards etc…

gummy bear

The seafood pajeon ‘pancake’ was a bit of a disaster. They still haven’t found the right combo of ingredients. I thought it was overly green-oniony and didn’t have enough dough to hold the seafood bits together. But what batter was there wasn’t cooked through, resulting in a gluey mess. The grill probably isn’t set at the right temperature.


The other half almost stroked out from excitement when okonomiyaki was set down in front of us. In NYC, places usually use pre-made frozen pancakes. Here, they make from scratch the Osaka and Hiroshima style, the former with cabbage mixed in the batter (above) and the latter with yaki soba noodle within and cabbage on top. In Japan it is a very popular post-bar street food. It’s basically a vehicle to absorb excess alcohol. I was mesmerized by the pile of dancing bonito flakes flitting about on top. The taste of it needs work though. Given that it is basically the kitchen sink of ingredients, the special sauce needs to bind the flavors, but May’s hasn’t found that sweet spot yet. Also, the cooking time fell short again, ergo the gummy batter.

me so soupy

By the time our guts were bursting with food, the eponymous ramen finally arrived. But I think a full belly makes for a more discriminating critic. I tried the house special Korean spicy seafood, and the other half had the Japanese soy. There was an interesting blurb at the bottom of the menu touting the health benefits of their broth because it was made with a mix of Chinese herbs. Now I make a pretty banging herbal soup with pork neck bones so I was anticipating something awesome. I questioned the use of herbs however, because the flavor is quite strong and unique, so I wondered if they would mask the taste of the seafood and soy.

The soy (above) came with half a soy-braised whole egg, slices of fatty soy pork and lots of green onion curls. The broth was overly salty, with nary a hint of Chinese herb. Maybe they only use the mildest tasting ones? On the other hand, the pork was underseasoned which was too bad because this egg was the star of the night, just braised enough to get the slight hint of color on the outside while the yolk inside remained a little al dente. I dislike gagging on clay-like yolk. This genius egg is what was missing in Minca’s ramen.

chili yeow

As for the seafood style, it should definitely be labeled as Korean, because it was that muddy mouth-filling spicy hot you get from the bowls of ramen in Koreatown. And the gimmick of putting three big whole pieces of shrimp, clam and half a crab while the rest of the pieces were dregs of the sea is totally off-putting to me. I understand keeping costs down, but do you have to make it so obvious? The chili paste drowned out any other flavor that could have been in the broth.

The noodle itself was not homemade; they were thin yellowish strands which were like chewing on rubber bands, without any satisfying QQ or slippery mouth feel you want from noodles. According to our sake friend however, this is good for not homemade, and this type of ramen is supposed to have the ‘crunchy’ type bite, not QQ. Okay, then, I won’t order this ramen again.

Overall, May Chan’s food has potential. The ideas need to be fully fleshed out; the selection dances between mainstream and the ones that are more obscure to the American palate. If they just focus on the basics of proper cooking and flavoring, the rest should work itself out to catch up with the modern design and upscale sake offerings.

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