Outside the Bento Box

SotoPhoto: Jeremy Liebman

The wise gastronomes of Japan have a single, ironclad litmus test when it comes to eating out in their own country: If you can’t actually see the chef at work, you’re probably in trouble. In New York, this sensible rule has been obscured by the popularity of supersize establishments like Ono, Megu, Morimoto, and the ever-expanding Nobu chain. But with rents high, and the city’s overheated restaurant scene cooling off in general, the more practical and traditional model of Japanese dining is making a comeback. Take Soto, which opened recently in the West Village, among the old leather joints and tattoo parlors on lower Sixth Avenue. There is no sign on the little restaurant’s front door. Inside, the austere, whitewashed room seats only 42 people. And night after night, you will find the proprietor himself, Sotohiro Kosugi, bent behind his sushi bar with his two loyal assistants, working with a kind of surgeon’s intensity in his spectacles and white sushi cap.

Kosugi is a third-generation sushi chef, from a small town in northern Japan that he likes to say “has more fish than people.” For the past eleven years, he has been laboring in Atlanta, where his cooking won a wide following among diners in that sushi-starved region. By New York standards, however, the sushi at Chef Kosugi’s new restaurant is good but not fabulous. The raw fish is flown in from around the globe five times a week, and it’s available in the usual rainbow of esoteric and pricey varieties. Take a seat at the polished, blonde-wood bar and sample semi-fatty “chu-toro” tuna from Ecuador ($8), fresh Amber Jack from Hawaii ($5), and pearly white Toyama shrimp from Japan ($6), all served in the decorous, classically small Tokyo style.

More notable at Soto, though, are the raw and gently cooked seafood dishes that emerge from the kitchen in a blizzard of inventive, unlikely, and often quite delicious ways. Kosugi produces several carefully executed tartares, ranging from the Nobu classic (a disk of fatty tuna over avocado coulis, with a dose of spicy ponzu sauce to cut the richness) to one made with melting bits of pearly white shrimp, flavored with yuzu and plated in a shiitake-ginger broth. There are shiny pieces of fluke, also dusted with yuzu zest; a delicate little ball of chopped aji (horse mackerel), rolled with shreds of shiso and ginger; and a texturally challenging though tasty creation called “uni ika sugomori zukuri,” composed of cool bits of squid, creamy California uni, and a quail egg, arranged with thin strips of seaweed.

Kosugi has an almost unnerving fondness for uni, which he uses in all sorts of quirky ways. He places spoonfuls of it on spools of the traditional Japanese tofu dish yuba, uses it to flavor the broth of his house miso soup, and whips it into a mousse to bind an elaborate layer cake of chopped lobster. Those suffering from uni fatigue can take refuge in deep-fried shrimp cakes capped with shiitake mushrooms and delicious bits of scallop and fluke and wrapped in tempura-ed shiso leaves, or the excellent “karei kara age”—an entire small flounder, deep-fried to a kind of golden-orange crispness and served head-on, with a wedge of lemon and a sidecar of ponzu sauce for dipping.

The only dish available for dessert consists of little pounded rice mochi balls filled with different flavors of ice cream. This delicacy is in vogue at small Japanese joints around town. But as with lots of things at this unlikely little restaurant, you probably won’t find them anywhere else among the tattoo parlors of lower Sixth Avenue.

BarFry, which opened a little over a month ago on Carmine Street, is another new, small-scale Japanese restaurant, albeit one with a strange twist. It’s a new-millennium tempura bar, a place where you can get fresh shrimp fried in the classic Japanese way, or veal terrine in a tempura crust, or even tempura chicken-fried steak stuffed into a fairly delectable New Orleans–style po’boy sandwich. The architect of this unlikely concept is the facile and talented Josh DeChellis, a chef who has mastered a variety of cuisines (seafood at Union Pacific, Japanese fusion at Sumile, Italian at the excellent but doomed Jovia) over the course of his long, somewhat star-crossed career. Now, like many talented cooks in town, he seems to be following the David Chang model by setting up shop in a smaller, less expensive room and cooking the kind of food that, presumably, he loves.

The room at BarFry is covered in utilitarian white bathroom tiles, and because the house music plays incessantly, it’s really loud. There are seventeen varieties of tempura on the menu (try the shrimp, the sticks of eggplant, the curly green peppers, and the yellowfin tuna), four tricked-up tempura sauces (the “jalapeno soy” is the best), and some generally excellent sides, like pea leaves dusted with lemon zest and XO sauce. DeChellis’s non-tempura specials are generally excellent, too, particularly the tuna tartare, which he leavens, inventively, with pickled ramps. As for the tempura, it has more crunch to it than the classic kind, but also more concentrated greasiness. It’s best sampled à la carte, or in those decadent po’boys. Eating all those fried items together in the special wire-bottomed “Chef’s Box” is like trying to devour an entire bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. The pure caloric density (even the green-tea ice cream is scattered with fried batter) is too much to bear.

Address: 357 Sixth Ave., nr. Washington Pl.; 212-414-3088
Hours: Monday through Saturday 5:45 to 11:45 p.m.; closed Sundays.
Prices: $8 to $28.
Ideal Meal: Aji tataki, scallop and shiso agedashi, uni, squid and shiso, fried flounder.
Note: For a small establishment, Soto carries an impressive list of artisanal sakes, served by the bottle or in chilled beakers.
Scratchpad: One star for the solid sushi, and another for Kosugi’s inspired seafood creations.

Address: 50 Carmine St., nr. Bedford St.; 212-929-5050
Hours: Sunday through Wednesday noon to midnight; Thursday through Saturday noon to 2 a.m.
Prices: Bar sides, $3 to $8; tempura, $3 to $10; po’boys $11 to $15.
Ideal Meal: Shrimp and eggplant tempura, chicken-fried-steak po’boy, sautéed pea leaves.
Note: Yes, you can fry veal terrine in tempura batter. If it’s on the menu (it’s a special), order it.
Scratchpad: DeChellis is more than a fry cook. As he shuffles non-tempura items into the menu, this restaurant may add a star.

Outside the Bento Box