Seeing at it was the night after Christmas, I was in the mood for something other than peking duck and moo shu shrimp. First, I squired a reservation at Dennis Foy’s new Tribeca haunt only to later receive a voicemail, informing me they had decided to close for a private party. So I went to Plan B and made a reservation at 15 East, a new sushi spot in the old Tocqueville space, suffering further disappointment which came in the form of another voicemail, which went something like, “We regret to inform me that the restaurant will be closed because the fish at the fish market didn’t meet the chef’s standards.” Though I appreciated their integrity and insistence to serve Christmas fish that could’ve been some three days old, I was now left with the duty of finding a reservation for five at somewhere new with only three hours to spare. With dashed hopes and dreams, I reached into my bag of tricks and pulled out Ariyoshi, a new spot that rides the current wave of izakayas opening around town.
What is an izakaya you might be wondering? (If not, just humor me):
I’m glad you asked. It’s a traditional Japanese bar or restaurant that serves both food and alcohol. In America, we call those restaurants with liquor licenses (which are quite hard to come by these days). Izakaya, comes from the word, sakaya – a sake shop – but most izakayas also serve small plates. Back in the day, you could pay a fixed price for an “all you can eat & drink” meal. Tragically lost in translation, most Americanized izakayas involve ordering a la carte off the menu. And now, back to our regular scheduled programming – Ariyoshi…
Once Takayama, an upscale sushi bar, this Union Square restaurant has been renamed and transformed into an izakaya. The modern space is sparsely garnished with sake barrels, bamboo-dressed light boxes, a flat screen tv playing a DVD of a Japanese music show, and a scattering of tree branches.
On the way to our table, my aggressive friend made a b-line for the sushi bar (with seating for 15) to interrogate a poor unsuspecting sushi chef. “Let me ask you a question. How can the fish be fresh if no one was fishing on Christmas day,” he demanded. He was hastily rescued by Roman, the manager, who insisted the fish was just purchased that morning. Instead of menus, we were enthusiastically presented with evidence – the receipts from the morning’s purchase at the fish market.
We ordered a bottle of Masumi sake and settled into the menu, which read more like a weighty Japanese food bible: yakitori, udon, teriyaki, rice bowls, rice balls, tofu and dumplings to name a few. With sushi as well as countless other miscellaneous appetizers and cooked entrees, there was a lot of ground to cover. Perhaps, too much. But we tried our damndest, beginning with the toro tartar.
Topped with a quail egg, a heaping mound of toro was surrounded by miso wasabi sauce. After one bite, my “aggressive friend” leaned over and whispered, “Taste this.” So I did.
It wasn’t so much fishy as it was gooey with metallic undercurrents, not to mention the thick miso sauce swallowed the fish whole. While the shrimp shumai were surprisingly flavorful, the salmon roe on a bed of grated radish was bland, ditto on the seaweed salad as well as an overly gummy beef negimaki. The cooked taro with fresh baby shrimp and “special sauce”, which was more of a soothing, soy sauce-laced vegetable broth, was the only standout as far as appetizers go.
But I wanted to venture deeper into izakaya territory, so I sampled a traditional pot, spilling over with frizzy udon noodles and beef muscle. The beef muscle was chewy and rich, but the rest of the dish fizzled; a mess of dull broth, overcooked tofu and root vegetables. Moving right along to the yakitori section: I sampled the tsukune (chicken meatballs), a standard I like to use to compare yakitori spots. While the meatballs were plump puffs of white meat, they were also in desparate need of seasoning.
As far as sushi goes, I sampled yellowtail and tuna sashimi, and a smattering of rolls, all of which were mediocre at best. But the onigiri (rice balls) are worth exploring: tucked into the middle of a well-vinegared ball of rice, the plum flake and sea eel, were both simple, but tasty endeavors. The best dish on the entire menu happens to be the garlic chili kinoko, a melange of five types of steamed mushrooms. Wrapped in tin foil, springy mushrooms arrived perfectly cooked and expertly seasoned with garlic oil and red pepper.
We wrapped up the evening with partially thawed mochi and a green tea ice cream, which was better than it had to be. Ariyoshi covers all of its bases, perhaps to a fault: they fail to master any Japanese cooking technique, particularly sushi. While this izakaya spreads itself way too thin, you can’t accuse Ariyoshi of having a limited menu.
Until we eat again,
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