“I don’t know about you,” one of my food-professional friends whispered the other evening, “but I grow weary of raw fish.” Or edamame, he might have said, or friendly Caucasian waiters dressed in ill-fitting samurai outfits, or any multisyllabic cocktail name containing the word geisha. It’s all on display at the city’s new wave of Japanese restaurants, plus much, much more. At the mammoth EN Japanese Brasserie, on Hudson Street, the specialty is freshly made tofu, ladled from lacquer boxes with big wooden dippers, along with an ingenious “miso sampler” served with a pile of iced-cabbage crudités. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Megu, in Tribeca, where Kobe-beef addicts can sit in the shadow of a giant dripping Buddha ice sculpture and addle themselves with Kobe-beef meatballs stuffed with foie gras ($5 per piece), Kobe-beef short ribs, and, for a cool $180, decorous cuts of Kobe-beef “Châteaubriand” finished with soy butter and exotic black sesame seeds jetted in from Kyoto.
The glittering Fiji-stone sushi bar is the place to sit at Geisha, on 61st Street, where I spent a hectic evening, not long ago, nibbling on decent though unspectacular sushi, and watching silent anime splatter films projected on the wall, next to a wild-eyed Upper East Side matron clutching a fur-lined purse. With its great vaulted dining hall and long, runway-style sushi bar, Matsuri, in the bottom of the Maritime Hotel in Chelsea, is still the most elegant of the new big-box Japanese establishments. Though Jeffrey Chodorow’s latest culinary-theme-park, Ono, has similarly impressive, mothlike paper lanterns suspended from the ceiling; addictive shot-glass shooters composed of Kumamoto oysters, ponzu sauce, and a single raw quail egg; plus the services of Sakiko, the very knowledgeable “sake sommelier.” Best of all, though, is the fully automated Japanese push-button toilet (on the second floor), complete with pop-up lid; a subtle, expertly aimed blow-dryer; and a whole range of cleansing water-jet options, including Regular, Oscillating, and Pulsating.
You’ll find no such gizmos uptown at Sushi of Gari, where the city’s most discerning sushi monks still stampede the tiny bar to taste Gari’s inventive, much-imitated raw-fish creations. The cramped modernist bar at Riingo is my favorite spot in midtown for Kobe beef sushi. But whenever I’m loitering around downtown and feel the need for a shot of pure protein, I’ll duck into a new restaurant called Hedeh, on Great Jones Street, for a bite of tuna belly or, perhaps, a helping of the lightly caramelized house foie gras, before ambling down Second Avenue to the tiny new Jewel Bako outlet called Makimono. This closet-sized establishment is hidden behind a discreet façade of brushed cement, and if you bring your uptown expense account with you, you can sample three generally superior grades of toro (o-toro for $12, chu for $8, aka for $4); an elegant, Atkins-friendly salad made with quail egg, tuna sashimi, hijiki, and red plum; and an almost perfect “inside-out” maki roll made with bay scallops and creamy avocado, spiked with yuzu, and speckled on its exterior with crunchy, golden caviar.