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

 

Hoppie is BACK

We’ve been rushing around in a muddled and befuddled state– not our preferred Hopper existence but so it goes. This hopper-writer in particular has a backlog of fine notes on all manner of NYC izakaya deliciousness–how many we have visited in the intervening months!–and all will be written and posted tout suite! For now, please accept our humble apologies and this very worthy round-up from New York Magazine of all things nibbly, warm, small-plated and big-hearted by way of great izakaya here in the city.

 

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

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