Wokuni

40684806_1934942763215873_5175576041405546496_nA discerning hopper must always balance the City’s delicious offerings with the opportunities and limitations that the average paycheck presents. While we have hopped with the best of them, visiting some of New York’s most refined izakaya, we thoroughly enjoy a good deal. Which is why our discovery of recently opened Wokuni brought us great hoppie joy and mirth—great flavors are on offer here, at very reasonable prices. Would that more Japanese eateries took a page out of the Wokuni book.

The cavernous, moody space on Lexington Avenue keeps things dim, polished, and riven with a techno backbeat that lends the place a bustling, frenetic energy even when largely empty. Gleaming bottles of shochu and sake climb the walls to nearly 20-foot heights, making this hopper wonder about sturdy ladders for late-night imbibing, but we didn’t have to scale a thing to get our drinks—delicious cocktails infused with ginger and lemongrass.

One thing these two hoppers don’t do nearly enough of is give ourselves over to the omakase menus of the various eateries we have tried. It is well and good to hunt and find individually selected treats on any given menu. But at Wokuni we decided to let chef Kuniaki Yoshizawa lead the way, and what a wonderful decision that proved to be.

Course after succulent course arrived at our table, sometimes spare in its plating, other times adorned with an extravagant, almost comical, aesthetic. A wedge of sea bream came paired simply with a chunk of corn on the cob, a single roasted tomato, and a smear of a luxurious ginger sauce.

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Yet our bowl-boat of sashimi arrived surrounded by a swirling exhalation of dry ice. Our waiter presented the bowl and then poured whatever needs to be poured to make dry ice do what it does best—spook the fish and give our dinner some Halloween vibes. We amused ourselves by plucking out fresh pieces of toro and salmon from the bowl, but accidently dropping a slice of fish into that mystery murk proved stressful. Maybe next time we will be lucky enough to leave the presentational theatrics aside and let the drama emerge from the flavors of the fish itself.

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Fish is indeed the big-ticket item at Wokuni, which flies the goods in on a daily basis from Tokyo’s Fish Market. Anywhere else, and such importing would translate into sky-high prices. But Wokuni, which also features a small, rare fish market at the front of the restaurant with some unusual offerings, is dedicated to showcasing the best of Japan’s seafood at prices any hopper will appreciate.

While not many izakaya embrace sushi, Wokuni doubles down on the stuff and our omakase meal featured wonderful examples of clean, simple sushi at its best, including a luscious wedge of uni and clean hunks of yellowtail.

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The multiple courses of our omakase left us feeling beyond sated, if a little stuffed, and we found ourselves—in an unusual Hoppie Hopper move—asking how many more courses there might be? We hadn’t paced ourselves and the bounty had started to feel like a glut. But at only $75 per person, what a wonderful problem to have!

Our waiter assured us that the last course—dessert—was on its way, and soon arrived with a platter of assorted treats, including mochi, chrysanthemum cheese cake, and a green-tea infused crème brulee. It was a delicious, well-rounded conclusion to a magnum opus of a meal that left us breathless with satisfaction, not sticker shock.

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Wokuni
327 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY
(212) 447-1212
Mon – Sat, lunch and dinner
Sun, dinner only

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Bari

Into every Hopper’s life, a little rain must fall. But while we have been on hiatus, the City’s fusion food offerings have proliferated apace. All the better. A dedicated hopper is one who rejoins the throng with an eager heart, empty stomach, and keen eye. We brought all three to Bari, a relatively new place delivering Korean plates under heavy Japanese influence. Would that all neighboring countries shared such secrets and delights with each other.

The space is bare, nearly cavernous, the better—perhaps— to focus on a sprawling menu and diverse drink offerings.

Much has transpired in the lives of these two dedicated Hoppers, so it was fitting that we start with two brisk cocktails and a leisurely review of the menu, between rounds of catching up and comparing notes.

The Bari martini is a fairly robust departure from the classic mainstay, but its combination of gin, cucumber, basil, ginger, lemongrass, and lime juice made for a kind of boozy hit of salad in a glass. The “signature cocktail” menu leans toward fruity, light concoctions, occasionally shot through with a muddled jalapeño. The well-edited sake list similarly plays with flavors that can cool or bite.

We started with the salmon noodles—a tightly wound bouquet of soba topped with chunks of raw salmon, watercress, and a beguiling sprinkle of flying fish roe that served to break the smooth noodles with their definitive, crisp pop.

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Our next move was an order of the Korean-style chicken wings in soy garlic sauce, the meat brined and juicy and the crunchy cartilage yielding under tooth. While Bari, which means bowl, is no izakaya, the work of fusing diverse flavors from multiple points of view is in evidence here just as it is in the Japanese gastro pub. For us, we were right at home, snacking on the wings and catching up in true Hopper fashion.

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Though Bari identifies as a “Korean-new American restaurant”, its Japanese influences are clear. We finished up the night with a pair of ikura sushi—the salmon roe. The two pieces arrived, flawless and gleaming, enrobed in crisp nori. Perfect.

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A charming young couple on, presumably, a date, wrapped up their own night, the gentleman leading the woman out with a gentle hand on the small of her back. Such is the inevitable finish of Bari—a brash, strong start in a welcoming space that woos you slowly, luxuriously, to a delicate finish.

The Bari
417 Lafayette St.
New York, NY
(646) 869-0383

Monday: 5 pm – 11 pm
Tuesday – Thursday: 5 pm – 11:45 pm
Friday: 5 pm – 12:15 am
Saturday: 11:30 am – 4 pm/5 pm – 12:15 am
Sunday: 11:30 am – 3:30 pm/4:30 pm – 11:00 pm

 

Bonsai, Say I

bonsaiThe Hoppers are on the move!

Come join us this Thursday, September 20, at New York’s Japan Society, where one of us will be moderating an in-depth discussion and exploration of the bonsai while the other will be plotting intricate, difficult questions to launch from the audience. We can’t wait!

Special guest Julian Velasco, long-time curator of the esteemed bonsai collection at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, will illuminate his process and new insights into the creation and cultivation of the bonsai.

I profiled Julian a few years ago for WNYC, New York’s NPR affiliate, and can’t wait to sit down with him again later this week.

Come join us!