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.”
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