Umonoie & Wasan

When life feels unsettled and the road ahead is pot-holed at best, what better way to recalibrate than with a few close Hoppers and a cozy round of izakaya classics? We Hoppers have been frankly reeling from recent events and, while we will refrain from overt political discourse in these Hoppie pages, suffice to say we have perhaps never needed more or better comfort.

Let’s just say we knew exactly where to go. So hop we did to a long-overdue reunion to Umonoie, an unassuming little haunt on the Lower East Side. The welcome upon arrival is warm, the tables low to the ground, and shoes are definitely off. Here we could curl up, take shelter, and hold close the things we Hoppers hold dear: good friendship, a refreshing quaff, and unassuming, quality fare. Home at last.

No Hopper is new to Umonoie, but this recent visit proved once again that sometimes the brightest gems are the unpolished ones. Umonoie favors simple, rustic décor and focuses, rightly, on an extensive menu of small, easy dishes that are perfect for sharing. After our waiter’s gracious overview of seasonal specialties, we began to make some very good decisions.

Decision number one came in the form of a cold sake whose name loosely translates to “in the midst of a sea of clouds” and a second, potato-based Satsuma shiranami that goes by the handle “white waves”. As the waiter placed the glasses down at our little table, we followed up with starters, ordering the tsukemono, a plate of five types of radish whose crisp refrain could only match the bitter ring of our hearts. Nibbling on this plate of cured shallots, cucumber, diakon, radish, and a second cucumber with shisho, we began to feel—just a bit—more like ourselves.

Takowasa, a small dish of wasabi-infused octopus, appeared next as if by magic from a secret stash of deep-water creatures that transform into shining little plates of nourishing happiness. We eagerly snapped up its offerings with our simple, wooden chopsticks and delighted in the fresh taste of the meat against the clean snap of spice.

Hoppers get serious when it comes to an ultimate in izakaya dishes—any rendering of the egg. On this evening, we lapped up an order of the unagi no omelet, a fluffy pad of yellow dotted with succulent knobs of eel. In keeping with our deep-sea interests, we paired this with an order of the ika no aburiyaki—char grilled squid with tangy mayo.

Full from our oceanic delights, but not yet sated for a proper night of hopping, we headed on to find ourselves at Wasan. Here, the two chefs, Kakusaburo Sakurai and Ryota Kitagawa (both of whom have cut their teeth in Japan and New York) team up with sake and wine sommelier Toshiyuki Koizumi to present seasonal dishes alongside an extensive collection of often-rare sake and shochu. While the team’s culinary ideas look to Japan, the ingredients are all locally sourced.

“Many of these dishes seem to be inspired by Fukue Island in Nagasaki Prefecture,” one Hopper observed. “That area is famous for its rich seafood and sake, as well as its beautiful rice. It is very cold there in the winter.”

We started things off with an order of grilled brussel sprouts nestled in a bed of guacamole infused with black vinegar. “Don’t ask me how they say this in Japanese,” the same Hopper joked. “It’s their interpretation.” It was, however, an interpretation that brought the best of the izakaya tradition to the fore—savory, a little sweet, an edge of acid. Perfect. Again we said “cheers” and toasted the future, however murky that future might now seem.

To follow, we dug into fat, heaping bowls of noodle soup. “One of the great inventions of Asia!” a Hopper exclaimed. “We start drinking miso from the age of two, and everyone in Japan can cook noodles by their junior year in high school. So if mom’s not around, you still get to eat something warm.” The richly colored ceramic bowls rolled in together with sides of fried chicken and warmed rice balls.

“You would have all of this at home,” a Hopper noted, reminiscing on bygone days of a Japanese childhood. “Not for a family dinner, but when you go out with your friends for drinks and real conversation. These are the things you’d be served.”

As we slurped and nibbled, sipped and dined, we couldn’t help but marvel at the balance of flavors and textures before us. Nothing taken for granted, each sensation new yet somehow familiar. Our journey through a couple of the best of the East Village’s izakaya spots proved to be a classic night of hopping, and it got us in a frankly reflective mood. If you can’t take stock with good friends on cold Fall evening as the world convulses with change even as the leaves drop, again, with their warm hues of closure, what can you do?

“There is an element of what we all long for that was present in that soup,” our founding Hopper observed as we signed our bills, adding it might have something to do with that ever-present but often elusive umami flavor. “And you know, it’s a sad thing,” she added. “The tolerance for fermentation varies by country. The US may be the lowest. That’s because you guys were so into speed, preferring things like TV dinners and microwaves.”

We weren’t in a hurry that night, and for sure we were the last to leave: comforted, sated, just a bit wistful, and perhaps preparing ourselves for the winter ahead with thoughts of Basho’s fine lines:

“All Heaven and Earth
Flowered white obliterate…
Snow… unceasing snow.”

Uminoie
86 East 3rd St., #2
New York, NY
(646) 654-1122
Daily, 7 pm – 2 am

Wasan
108 East 4th St
New York, NY
(212) 777-1978
Mon – Thurs, 6 pm – 10:30 pm
Fri – Sat, 6 pm – 2 am
Sun, 6 pm – 10:30 pm

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Bar Goto

There comes a time in the life of a Hopper when it all gets to be too much and the Hopper is exhausted. She still roams here and there, partaking of the seasonal delights and slurping freely from the grand ramen bowl in the sky, but she has become lax, unobservant, and ill-suited to the true rigors of Hopping. Sad, but true: we’ve been sliding.

Happily, this state of affairs came to a resounding halt this past weekend, as the two founding Hoppers got together at Bar Goto, a fun, casual izakaya we had been meaning to try on the Lower East Side. With the winter behind us and the first of the spring buds emerging, we were pleased to celebrate the new season with the fresh dishes, and fine beverages, all on offer at this unassuming New York izakaya in the best possible iteration.

Kenta Goto, formerly of the fine cocktail lounge Pegu Club, has set up a discreet and bustling spot where he pours a masterful mix of beverages infused with Japanese spirit and panache. I started things off with a sprightly “Far East Side”, which married a biting flavor of ginger with tequila and mellow sake. It was a serious brew that came, appropriately, in a classic coupe. Fellow Hopper went with the Sakura Martini, a sake-based offering grounded with pickled cherry flower in full splay. We followed this with a sampling of the Jasmine-Apricot 75, another sake-based drink spiked with sweet apricot, before parting beverage ways: one for a sensible Malbec, the other for a little Ryujin “Dragon God” sake.

We Hoppers had a lot to catch up on (big Hopper news coming down the pike this season—we go international! Stay tuned for more…) so we were pleased to keep our glasses full and our plates brimming with the original takes on traditional Japanese bar snacks. Fries made of gobo root (or burdock, as it is more commonly known in the west) came long, slender, and perfectly crisp, wanting only a sprinkle of the side condiments on offer: powered wasabi root and finely-grated chili flakes.

These seasonings brought out the earthy sensibility of the gobo root, with just the slightest overlay of ocean brine that this Hopper swears she could detect. Far more complex, and ultimately satisfying, than a usual order of fries, the gobo spears paired perfectly with the brightness of our drinks and were fun to dress up with sprinkles from our various and beautiful seasoning bowls.

We next tried the Goto pickle platter, a rich assortment of pungent roots and vegetables that had been sauced up and arrived just in time to cut the light grease of our opening appetizer. Pickled beets glistened like red garnets, while the pickled taro root offered a starchy rejoinder.

It was perfect snacking, talking, catching up food ahead of our main event—the miso-infused wings. “These have been prepared in the Nagoya style,” the founding Hopper explained. “It is a hearty, thick preparation of the wings to give more energy and sustenance to workers. This truly is classic bar food, ready to eat with your fingers and satisfying after a long day of real labor.”

Nagoya, she was quick to add, is smack in the middle of the main island of Honshu, home of Toyota and where a great number of hard workers come to bars and izakaya just like Bar Goto to fill up and chill out.

While neither of us had done any “real labor” on this warm, early spring Saturday in New York, so too would any workers be hard pressed to complain about the toothsome, full-bodied preparation of these wings: redolent with rich miso flavor, there was perhaps just as much sauce as meat, all of which we washed down easily with sake and wine. We gestured for our refills, promising each other it would be our last for the night, and continued to talk long into the evening in a little wedge of the Lower East Side that transported us, for a good few hours, back to Japan.

Bar Goto
245 Eldridge Street
New York, NY
(212) 475-4411
Tues-Thurs, 5 pm – 12 am
Sat-Sun, 5 pm – 2 am
Monday, closed

Azasu

“This is a tough sell for Americans who don’t understand Western Japan,” one hopper commented as she reviewed the Azasu menu at one of the izakaya’s many high tables. The casual sister restaurant of Yopparai, Azasu’s name is slang for arigato gozaimasu, or thank you in Japanese. “It’s to me even kind of shocking” the hopper continued, speaking of Western Japan. “More rugged and diverse, with greater influence from continental Asia. That’s the kind of food we find here.”

So we were ready for a serious night of deep fried delights to be washed down by glasses of frozen shochu-infused hoppie. And we were not disappointed.

Still largely dominated by sushi spots high and low, perception of Japanese food in New York remains largely stuck in the domain of “refined”, “sophisticated”, “clean”, and “healthy eating”. But the advent of the city’s izakya scene is helping to upend that narrow view and show the true depth of culinary experience Japan has to offer. “This place is deep fried,” a hopper from Tokyo offered. “It’s all comfort food, like American hush puppies and hash browns.”

For starters, we shared a plate of negidama, or the fried balls of oft-discarded odds and ends of meat, topped with kewpie mayo and bonito flakes that slowly waved with the exhale of the dish’s heat. The crunchy exterior gave way to savory, juicy insides of slow-cooked meat mixed with scallion and rolled in a flour-based batter. “This is what poorer people used to eat, cooked a long time to make it tender.” Is the whole of Japan, if not the world, waking up to the possibilities of this “lower class” cuisine now? The native Japanese hoppers at the table shook their heads with an emphatic yes.

“If you think about Kyoto as the sort of refined, culinary capital of Japan, it is like Manhattan,” another hopper explained, just as a platter of Nagoya-style fried chicken wings were deposited on the table. “Western Japan, from that point of view, is a kind of Brooklyn or Bronx to that refined Manhattan.”

We tucked into the chicken wings, redolent with cracked black pepper and bristling with succulent meat. “Nagoya is the home of Toyota,” a hopper pointed out. “It’s in the middle of Japan with this kind of savory, miso-based flavor you can taste on this chicken. It’s very different from the soy-based style of Kyoto or Tokyo– more spicy and feisty.”

The sumo matches playing on the big screen overhead were the perfect accompaniment to the arrival of the kushi-katsu, a rough-hewn platter of fried treats that matched perfectly with our ever-diminishing glasses of hoppie. Deep fried asparagus, yam, and crab meat croquettes showed off Azasu’s skill of capturing Western Japan’s chilled-out pub grub in a light, easy-eating way. We helped ourselves to the tamari soy bucket stationed at our table, spilling the sauce onto our skewers. “Some pubs in western Japan only serve kushi-katsu,” a hopper explained. “So they have signs up everywhere that say ‘No Dipping More Than Once!'” At Azasu, we took heed.

Next up were the hane gyoza, a platter of dumplings topped with the flat pancake of fried batter in which they were cooked. The thin cake yielded with each sharp, crunchy bite to a juicy dumpling interior highlighted by chili soy sauce. In time, the table grew quiet, consumed only by the act of consumption and staring blankly at the closing sumo ceremony.

“The whole thing about sumo is really mysterious,” one hopper finally said. “It’s related to the Shinto myth on which the imperial family is built. But now most of the best wrestlers are from Mongolia. I guess people still worship these guys because they are so big and we Japanese are so small and skinny,” she said, pondering her next fried dumpling.

Though we eschewed Azasu’s massive courses of chanko nabe, the protein-rich hot pot typical of the sumo’s “high power diet”, we sopped up the dredge of our night with a plate of yakisoba– pan fried ramen with beef entrails and fried egg– coupled with cups of “manly mountain” sake. Some friendly people at a neighboring table started telling us about their upcoming trip to Tokyo and everyone got hungry not for more food, but to jump into a cab to JFK.

“The Japanese yen is currently pretty weak,” a hopper said as we got up to leave. “It’s a good time to go.”

Azasu
49 Clinton Street
New York, NY
(212) 777-7069
Mon – Thurs, 6 pm – 11 pm
Fri – Sat, 6 pm – 1 am
Sun, Closed

Teshigotoya

Last night we hopped out to Teshigotoya, an unassuming little spot bristling with great bites, unexpected sake and tapas pairings, and a very exciting range of shochu cocktails. What delights befell us! Buried in deepest East Village, Teshigotoya offers a simple, comfortable dining room, bar, and open kitchen in which the chefs work at a focused, measured pace to the sweet strains of Marvin Gaye and TLC. What they’re busy preparing is right on the nose of the current izakaya trend– nailing interesting combinations of western flavor with Japanese tradition to produce awesome small plates, perfect for sharing and full of unusual flavor, texture, and umami.

We started perusing the drinks list, which offered up some imaginative combinations of shochu, seasonal fruit, and soda. We narrowly decided against a pair of nice, tall gummi bear-hi, in which that timeless, chewy workhorse gets a shochu bath, for yuzu-chu and gari-chu. The yuzu-chu, a combination of shochu and fragrant yuzu citrus, was bright and clean, with just a hint of juicy sweetness. The gari-chu came packed with pickled ginger, offering a bracing combination of sharp ginger flavor and mellow shochu.

We started with the chef’s omakase selection of five flavors. They came beautifully arranged and reminded us again of the diversity of the Japanese plate. Shavings of exquisite imberico ham lay nested beside a kind of Japanese take on ceviche featuring yellow tail and octopus. A couple of squares of perfectly prepared potato salad stood at attention beside a short stack of pickled radish, each nicely offsetting the other. Cured shrimp centered the plate, intermingled with asparagus and pepper-dusted. We popped them into our mouths with eager, plucky chopsticks.

Shishito pepper arrived deep fried in a light, friendly batter and paired with a pungent tapenade, again proving the Teshigotoya affinity not only for east-west pairings but impressive leaps of flavor combination. A platter of garlic bread came saturated with gooey, warm cheese and an uni sauce. We pulled the pieces apart and sank our teeth into the baked treats like kids.

A platter of gently prepared pasta tossed with garlic and tomato rounded off the meal, marking a departure from anything classically considered Japanese but again expressing the range of the izakaya. By now we had polished off our yuzu-chu and gari-chu, moving on to tall glasses of chilled asahiyama junmai. The Asahi brewery, it turns out, produces this fine sake. Our the glasses came in saucers, allowing the waitress to pour to overflowing. After drinking the cup down a bit, we tipped our saucers, enjoying that extra sip or two that had spilled forth.

The only down side was Teshigotoya was out of a few things on the menu, including its celebrated croquettes. It was a set back that sent us rushing back to the menu a few times. Additional items and specials are chalked all over the walls in rather bewildering direct translations from the Japanese that had one of us in hysterics and the other scratching her head. Where Teshigotoya missed the mark, it more than made up for in bubbly personality. Our waitress popped back over regularly, topping up our asahiyama junmai and chatting with us about life in the city. “I work three jobs,” she mused. “But I’m still broke!”

We’ll be back and it will be interesting to see how the menu adapts to the coming change in season and new offerings as the weather cools and winter approaches. With most dishes running $8 to $15, Teshigotoya offer a nice range with a sense of humor at a relatively easy price point.

Four hops for Teshigotoya!

Teshigotoya
432 East 13th Street
New York, NY
(212) 777-4374
M-S, 3:30 pm – 10:50 pm
Sundays and holidays: 5:30 – 10:30