Address: 226 W. 50th St., btwn. Broadway & 8th Aves.
Cuisine: Japanese-Italian fusion
Vibe: Typical modern Asian
Scene: Times Square escapees
Hours: Sun – Mon, 11:30am – 11pm, Tue – Fri, 11:30am-11:30pm. Sat, 12pm-12am.
Scoop: Separate bar & lounge with sushi-slanted lounge menu.
Price: Appetizers, $2.50-$15. Entrees, $16-38.
Reservations: Reservations accepted.
Times Square’s a tricky stretch to open an ambitious restaurant. The late 7Square, a modern chophouse with Lespinasse-trained chef Shane McBride, quickly comes to mind. With Ruby Foo’s, Carmine’s & the relentless bowl of pasta at the Olive Garden, tourists & theater-goers are pretty much covered. But with numerous successes under their belt, restaurateurs Barbara Matsumura & Haru Konagaya seem to know how to please the public at large. Inspired by a recent trip to Italy, their newest gig is a bold move: a Japanese-Italian fusion restaurant in the Theater District.
Separated by the lobby of Amsterdam Court Hotel, Natsumi doubles as a lounge & restaurant, both modernly furbished with the usual Asian accoutrements: natural woods, creamy leather chairs and rice paper light fixtures. While it looks like your run of the mill sushi haunt with your typical sushi offerings, it isn’t. Instead of the token cheap glass of nondescript Chardonnay or Merlot (don’t ask, don’t tell), Natsumi actually has a decent wine list and homemade infused sakes to boot. Even more interesting, Natsumi will soon be serving their own brand of red & white wines as well as well balsamic vinegar and olive oil. (The plot thickens.)
And then there’s the menu, mostly traditional Japanese fusion – tempura, sushi rolls, seafood toban yaki & miso black cod – with a sparse, but curiously notable sprinkling of Italian ingredients and flavors. For example, you’ll be scrolling down the list of appetizers and stumble on a random chicken salad with balsamic vinaigrette, tuna tartar martini with basil pesto or beef asparagus maki with mozzarella cheese. Even more unexpected is the pizza nuova, a selection that includes tuna with spicy mayo atop baked thin-crust bread or seared salmon with cream cheese.
Seeing as I adore good Japanese and Italian food, I was more than game. Why wouldn’t this marriage work? Afterall, Japanese & French techniques seem to blend wonderfully, especially in the hands of talented chefs like Bouley and Josh DeChellis. Like chocolate & peanut butter. But while eggplant & mozzarella tastes delicious, as does eggplant & miso sauce, eggplant with miso & mozzarella doesn’t: they cancel each other out and you end up with muddled flavors and a mushy texture. Neither does pesto in the doppio toro roll (salmon, yellowtail, avocado, asparagus & pesto). As I bit into the puffed-up fusion roll, I was suddenly experiencing an unpleasant deja vu: Standing in my kitchen, I’d sprinkled what I thought was cinammon on an apple, realizing only post-swallow it was paprika. Not a good combination to say the least.
The traditional Japanese offerings are a better bet. They’re also beautifully presented as evident in a salmon tartar: two stacked layers of varying tartar – the first a chopped shiso & salmon atop salmon & crunchy tobiko – separated by slices of creamy avocado and delightfully punched up by a zippy wasabi tobiko dressing. I’d also invest in a meaty miso black cod perched on nicely charred asparagus and sauced with a thick sake miso. It’s not Nobu, but then again it is Times Square, and a lounge that serves decent sushi post-theater, isn’t easy to come by in these parts. I would’ve finished with dessert, but they were out of the first three offerings as well as both tartufos.
I haven’t given up on the potential for successful Italian-Japanese fusion. Rumor has it (by way of Food Talk’s Mike Colameco) that Basta Pasta‘s mastered this union. I’m off to tempt spaghetti with flying fish roe and shiso…
Until we eat again,
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