Those of you with an appreciation for the quirky anthropology of New York City restaurants will remember, with a quiet shudder, the invasion of the boisterous Japanese Godzilla restaurants during the first half of this decade. These giant, big-box establishments (Matsuri, Megu, EN Japanese Brasserie, to name just a few) blossomed around town during the peak of the Bull Market Bubble. They featured herds of shouting waiters, great barn-size dining rooms, and menus rich with luxurious expense-account delicacies, like fatty tuna belly and Kobe beef flecked with gold leaf. These days, most of the Godzilla-size joints are still functioning, but, like the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous era, they are in a period of existential crisis. They are beset by hordes of smaller, more nimble competitors. Expense accounts have withered away. Health-conscious big-city gourmands no longer eat mercury-laden sushi by the boatload. And, most ominous of all, the simple cheeseburger has replaced Kobe beef as the city’s totemic food.
But don’t tell any of this to the owners of Inakaya, the irrepressible new robatayaki that recently opened on the ground floor of the New York Times Building, on 40th Street. Typically, robatayakis are casual, neighborly places where patrons sit around a wood bar and nibble quietly on shreds of grilled meat, fish, and vegetables. But there’s nothing quiet or intimate about this setup, which is the New York outlet of a well-known restaurant in the Roppongi section of Tokyo. The main feature of the roomy, high-ceilinged hall is a wraparound, industrial-size dining bar made with acres of laminated wood. It’s manned by a squad of cooks wearing brightly colored traditional kimono costumes and latex surgical gloves. The cooks grill the food, then serve it to the diners at the bar on long wooden paddles, while keeping up an insistent call-and-response chatter with the voluble waiters, who are also dressed in elaborate costumes, like characters in some antic Japanese television food show.
Robatayakis in Japan don’t generally serve raw fish, but at this Godzilla robatayaki, sushi and sashimi are available in the usual mind-numbing variety. Within three minutes of taking my seat at the bar, I’d sampled passably fresh portions of uni, a decent piece of salmon-roe sushi, and some gummy Japanese snapper, amid much gesticulating and shouting. (“What are they saying?” I asked my Japanese-speaking friend after one deafening cry. “They’re saying your sushi has arrived,” she replied.) The raw fish at Inakaya isn’t quite on a par with the great midtown sushi parlors, but it’s not bad either. There are three grades of tuna on the menu, including a rich, if too small, piece of o-toro fatty tuna belly, which you can get as a sashimi tasting for the bull-market price of $70. The best deals are the maki rolls, which come in eighteen generally competent varieties, including spicy shrimp tempura, soft-shell crab, and a palatable dragon roll.
Despite the Disney-style atmosphere, Inakaya serves an array of dutifully authentic Japanese drinking dishes, like grated yams (yama-kake), helpings of squid seized in fermented soybeans (ika natto), and strips of dried stingray fins, which taste like fishy lemon rinds. My friend the Japan Snob considered her delicate teacup of chawan mushi (a kind of warm egg custard mixed with shrimp and vegetables) to be a respectable facsimile of the real thing. So was my bowl of chazuke, which is a soothing helping of rice and tea-flavored broth, dappled with seaweed and bits of sweet-and-sour ume plum or salmon roe. I don’t know if I’d pay $9 again for a sticky pile of okura kizami (cooked okra), but if you’re looking for a filling snack before boarding your Greyhound bus to Cleveland, you could do worse than the house version of kakuni (soft slices of pork belly, braised in soy) or a nourishing helping of sansai seiro, which consists of steamed bamboo and other so-called mountain vegetables served over rice in a simple wooden box.
Some traditional robatayakis offer a profusion of grilled meats and innards (tripe, chicken gizzards), but at Inakaya the pickings are surprisingly slim. There were only five such items on the menu when I ate there, among them some very good chicken meatballs (“Your meatballs have arrived!” one of the waiters shouted) dripping in teriyaki sauce, and, for the outlandish price of $45, a few meager chunks of grilled Wagyu beef. The seafood selection is more various, although the more my Japan Snob friends and I paid for a seafood dish, the less we liked it. My $35 grilled lobster was the size of a large shrimp, and the $65 deep-sea snapper, which the restaurant has flown in from the famed Tsukiji market in Tokyo, was bony and undersize and smelled like an opulent form of cat food. Order the decorous yellowtail fillet instead (just $24, and touched with teriyaki) or the black rockfish ($27), which is scattered with sea salt and served with a little mound of ground daikon and a chaste squeeze of lemon.
The glass windows at Inakaya look out on a heavily trafficked flyway between Times Square and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and when it’s raining, the combination of madly shouting waiters and the long lines of umbrellas streaming along outside give the room a quirky, Blade Runner feel. The purpose of all these theatrics is to entertain, of course, and on the evenings I dropped in, the bar was more or less filled with random salarymen and families of tourists, all of whom appeared to be having a good enough time. The house selection of sakes is skimpy, even by New York standards, but if you enjoy the popular Japanese rotgut called shochu, it comes in several potent varieties, made with sweet potatoes, barley, or rice. The selection of desserts is negligible, too (there’s only green-tea, red-bean, or vanilla ice cream), although given the generally grisly quality of desserts at Godzilla restaurants, this isn’t such a terrible thing.