Who knows precisely when the Home Depot/Wal-Mart method of selling lawn mowers and table lamps and garden furniture jumped from the mall-ridden wastelands of American suburbia to the Japanese restaurants of Manhattan? Who really cares? At this point, the trend is no longer a trend—it’s practically an established fact. When it comes to Japanese restaurants in New York, proprietors prefer giant orchids and lots of ice sculptures (Megu), multilevel dining rooms (Ono), and great hanging lanterns like you might see in a planetarium (Matsuri). Big is good, but big and glittery is even better. The latest Big Box Japanese establishment to land in town is called EN Japanese Brasserie, a great aircraft carrier of a place, which opened two months ago on Hudson Street. The owners of EN run a chain of restaurants in Japan specializing in a homey, pub style of dining called izakaya. Izakayas, typically, are small, neighborly places where groups of gruff gentlemen sip sake and eat local, rustic dishes like grilled beef tongue or boiled burdock root. You can actually get a good bowl of boiled burdock root at EN, but the experience isn’t exactly neighborly, and there’s nothing very rustic about it.
Not that this is a bad thing. The food is often very good at EN, and the way the proprietors have taken a specific, even obscure, form of Japanese cooking, and blown it into a high-volume, bridge-and-tunnel extravaganza, is a study in clever rebranding. Diners gather first in a long, beige lounge appointed with elaborate wood carvings, scattered lounge tables and chairs, and a series of stand-up bars decorated with white orchids. One gets to sip varieties of sake here, and fusion vodka cocktails spiked with earthy green tea, before being led into the main dining room, which is as big as a parking garage, and about as inviting. New arrivals are greeted by rousing cries of “Irrashaimase!” (“Welcome!”) from legions of cooks wearing cotton headscarves, like the kind sported by peasant bandits in samurai films. Tables are scattered in distant corners, and there is a series of communal dining counters set around a weirdly lit granite fountain, but the focus of the restaurant is a long dining bar, which is made of blond Japanese pine and fitted out with stacks of Japanese crockery and a big, steaming tofu cooker.
It turns out that tofu, in various fresh-made forms, is central to EN’s culinary identity. Tofu is to this peculiar style of restaurant what frites are to a French brasserie. It’s skimmed into thin sheets of tofu skin called yuba, or steamed in clay pots with yams and bits of crab, or scooped into lacquer boxes and served warm or chilled, with different varieties of soy sauce. All the tofu I sampled was good, but the most interesting was the yuba sashimi, composed of cool, milky strips of freshly made yuba compressed into squares and served with a mound of shaved radish and a single shiso leaf. You can also get yuba stuffed in the traditional manner with unagi (freshwater eel), sunk in a bowl of warm bonito broth, or fried with anago (sea eel). For miso fiends, there are thick, nutritious varieties (sesame, peanut butter, spicy) of handmade miso, presented in Japanese teacups, with a big pile of fresh cabbage for dipping. There’s also an esoteric sashimi made from a root-vegetable paste called konnyaku, which is infused with bits of seaweed and served on crushed ice. Dipped in miso, it has a sweet, jellied, curiously dissolving quality, like some exotic form of vegan candy.
Healthy dining is a hot trend in restaurant circles, of course. So are small plates, big menus, communal eating, and sushi, all of which are on aggressive display at EN. The house sushi is decent but not spectacular, although there are a variety of inventive maki rolls (spicy chu-toro folded with okra, anago with cubes of cream cheese). The best of the small dishes is a creamy-smooth avocado salad, mixed with cool, pearly shrimp and peppery mayonnaise. The worst is a plate of octopus (identified as squid on the menu) chopped into rubbery nuggets and obscured in a toothpaste-thick miso sauce. Between these two extremes, there are fat, tasty shrimp fritters, crisp-fried hunks of chicken, and sea bass presented on little pedestals, with a wedge of lemon. There are sautéed oysters, too (dunked in too much teriyaki sauce), and weirdly skinless chicken sausages and a series of nourishing, though very gummy, local izakaya delicacies, like potato croquettes encased in mochi, and minced chicken and big slices of daikon swimming in a thick yam-infused broth.
How this kind of esoteric home cooking will go over with New York diners is hard to say. The beef tongue I sampled was tasteless and leathery, and the skimpy helping of grilled Wagyu beef was properly rich and fatty, but not worth its $38 price tag. Maybe I’ve grown weary of that ubiquitous New York–Japanese dish miso-soaked black cod, but I thought the EN version was rubberized beyond recognition, and the fancy seared chu-toro dish I sampled (the tuna is cut in cubes and tossed with garlic) was dry. But the grilled pork shoulder was good (it’s dunked in sake and miso), and so was the pork belly, which is simmered to a melting, fatty softness and presented in a thick peasant’s pot. You can also get nourishing crocks of rice and salmon, and several respectable varieties of shabu-shabu (we liked the chicken meatballs), all of them cooked at the table, with glass noodles and vegetables, in a steamy silver pot. And if you tire of all this relentless heartiness, order the duck breast, which is cut into meticulously thin slices and covered in a little drift of grated daikon flavored with tangy ponzu sauce.
Aside from all the sakes (brought to the table in pointy bamboo beakers) available at EN, you can also dizzy yourself with shochu, the fierce Japanese vodka drink, which is newly in vogue in Tokyo. I observed crowds of party-animal stockbrokers knocking back cups of sweet-potato shochu, and shochu infused with Turkish apricots, both of which tasted more or less like fiery rotgut to me. The desserts are mercifully shochu-free, although one curious puddinglike substance is flavored with buckwheat soba and tea. Other desserts are better, particularly the tofu mousse, which turns out to be a soothing form of tofu flan, served in a pool of liquefied brown sugar. There’s also a deliciously puffy form of French toast (with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream), and a superior sampler of fresh-made ice creams made with different Japanese teas. My favorite ice-cream item, though, was the shiso sorbet. This dish is made like a granité, with flecks of ice, and folded with bits of shiso and lumps of citrus gelée, and although you probably won’t find it in a tiny izakaya back in Tokyo, it is served here with a rustic wooden teaspoon.
Ideal Meal: Fresh yuba sashimi, creamy avocado with baby-shrimp salad, sautéed duck breast, and shiso sorbet.
Note: Like authentic baguettes, the tofu at EN is made fresh, five times per evening.