I love robata (open-fire grill) cooking. I love yakitori, izakayas, and sushi, too. In fact, I’m pretty much in love with the entire genre of Japanese food. So when Mr. Robata opened it midtown just a few weeks ago, I was eager to there. My only concern was the location. Historically speaking, the theater district isn’t exactly a dining destination. Most New Yorkers only eat in the theater district out of necessity, like when they’re seeing a show or work in the neighborhood. From a restaurant perspective, it’s hard to survive unless you’re surviving heaping platters of spaghetti and meatballs (Carmine’s) or unlimited breadsticks (Olive Garden). So I was a little skeptical about what I would find.
The first thing you should know about Mr. Robata is that it’s right next door to Flash Dancers, “A Gentleman’s Club.” That’s what is says on the strip club’s sign anyway. This did not bode well. I was early for my reservation, so I stood outside, watching a few seedy characters pass in and out of Flash Dancers. (The ones on their way out seemed much happier than the ones on their way inside.) If my friend’s cell phone hadn’t run out of batteries, I probably would’ve aborted the plan and gone elsewhere. We decided to press our luck and hope for the best. Just imagine someone plopped a stylish, yet serene Japanese restaurant down next to a strip club and you’ve got the idea. There’s a long, blonde wood robata-cum-sushi counter where you can either sit in front of the sushi chef or the robata grill. Now you don’t see robata grills (robatayaki) that specialize in sushi, or at least ones that do both well stateside. That made me nervous. While most people (or the sensible ones anyway) would steer clear of the sushi, I consider the presence of a sushi bar a challenge. I mean, if you’re going to try be “two restaurants in one,” you ought to know what you’re doing.
The menu itself is big, too large if you ask me, and it’s peppered with fusion-style dishes, like a quinoa, poached shrimp, and avocado salad with shiso dressing or an anchovy-miso fondue with exotic crudite. I’m a traditionalist, so I stuck with an appetizer of shisito peppers and several kinds of grilled vegetables cooked over the robata, the best of which were meaty eringi mushrooms anointed in teriyaki, zucchini, and asparagus with lemon and salt. Everything cooked on the robata comes with a trio of dipping sauces, which included shiso mayo (great), passionfruit ponzu (fine), and wasabi cream cheese (not a fan). There’s a terrific entree of saikyo-marinated sea bass, served with a unique and tasty array of vegetables, including wilted bok choy, grilled endive, mushrooms and black truffles. For $32, you’d think they would use truffle oil or skip the truffles altogether, but they were surprisingly generous, and even more importantly, surprisingly good in the ensemble. I was set on sushi, so I ordered the Tasmanian salmon sashimi, Montauk fluke, mackerel and the botan ebi shrimp sushi. Truth be told, I was ready to hate it, or even worse, fear for imminent food poisoning. But it was really very good, especially the fluke, which was markedly fresh and flavorful. While I’m not a fan of fusion of the tuna tataki, tomato salsa, with wasabi cream cheese sorts (yes, that’s an actual dish on the menu), I would definitely return for the robata and sushi offerings. As for dessert, we had the homemade mango and lychee sorbet, an impressive and refreshing finish to the evening. Not a bad first impression, Mr. Robata.
Address: 1674 Broadway, btwn. 52nd & 53 Sts.