I had nearly given up on eating at the new Japanese izakaya Ootoya in Gramercy. Every time I tried to stop in for dinner I’d stumble into a fleet of hopeful diners surrounding the hostess stand and come up against an hour or two wait for a table. Having become very impatient in my old age, I’d sulk near the bar for ten minutes, then head to nearby 15 East or another Japanese joint. I’d all but given up, but I thought I’d do one last drive-by on the evening of the recent Noreaster. The room was still buzzing and the eating counter packed, but the snowfall had scared off a few diners, so there was one two-top left in the house. The counter seats and main dining room were all taken, but I was happy to be indoors, gifted a cup of warm tea before I could even open my menu. The space itself is serene, subtly stylish with Asian accents and wood trimmings. If you look out at the diners, you’ll notice that the majority of them are Japanese, which albeit a cliche, is always a good sign. Many of them have probably eaten at an Ootoya before.
Ootoya’s Tofu Salad
Ootoya is a first for New York and America, but there’s over 300 outposts in Asia. For those who don’t know, an izakaya is a lot like a Japanese pub with a little bit of everything — part yakitori, part sushi bar and part noodle bar. Technically, it’s a chain, but the food tastes like anything but chain food. The Homemade Tofu is so soft and creamy it practically melts on contact with your tongue. It tastes like it was made only minutes before it appeared on the table and it’s by far one of the best renditions I’ve eaten. I sampled it in the Tofu Salad, which comes scattered with seaweed and crunchy nibbles of whitefish bait in a traditional Japanese dressing. And while most Japanese restaurants specialize in one thing or another, like ramen or sushi, Ootoya dabbles in several genres of Japanese cooking, including yakitori, sashimi, ramen and soba, and they happen to do a fine job at it. There’s housemade pickles (Nukazuke) to nibble on, a mix of eggplant, carrots, peppers, cucumbers and daikon, a Fried Soba Salad, and Ika No Shiokara, which is Japanese for raw squid cured in salt and squid liver. One of my favorite finds is the mini, appetizer portion of Soba Noodles. So many times you have to commit to one large noodle dish and forsake the rest of the menu, but Ootoya lets you dabble by offering your choice of homemade soba with grated yam or pickled plum. I went for the Tsunami Tororo Soba, soba noodles with a frothy topping of grated yam, earthy and subtle, accompanied by a sweet soy dipping sauce. The noodles were cooked perfectly al dente and served traditionally cold to savor the springy texture and buckwheat essence of the noodles.
Curry Udon Soup
While I ordered the assorted Sashimi, I never thought it would be as good or as affordable as it was. The sushi chef put together an exceedingly fresh ensemble that included uni from Japan, salmon, fluke, kanpachi, deliciously fatty tuna and delicate scallop petals arranged with sliced lemon — a sashimi platter that could easily hold its own against other respected sushi joints around the city. And there’s plenty of other dishes to nibble at, including chicken livers or washu beef yakitori, a juicy cut of steak, cooked to a medium rare and seasoned with pepper. But my favorite dish was one I hadn’t ordered. I’m an opinionated orderer and I just didn’t see the point of getting a curry udon at a place that specialized in homemade soba and tofu. Against my wishes, my dining companion went ahead and ordered the Donabi Curry Udon, a hot curry soup laden with broccoli rabe, scallions and a delicious foil of pork. I say foil, because the pork is flavored intensely with cinnamon, offsetting a little of the heat and spice from the curry seasoning, and more importantly, teasing out the sweetness of the soft, pork meat itself. The noodles are thick and bouncy and manage to soak up a dose of cinnamon in the broth. It’s the kind of dish you could make a habit of, if it weren’t so challenging to get a table.
While you’re here, spend a little time wandering the sake and shochu list, both of which offer a solid and interesting selection. I’m a shochu drinker, so I dabbled a bit and discovered one I’d never tried before, a Purple Sweet Potato Shochu called Kuro Kirishima — beautiful shochu with a faintly sweet aroma and flavor. I finished the evening with a traditional sweet of cubed rice mochi, dusted in soybean flour, and sided by sweet red beans. Like I said at the beginning, I rarely wait, but I returned to Ootoya three days later with a craving for Curry Udon soup and discovered several new dishes. If I were you, I’d suck it up, put name on the waitlist and grab a sake or shochu at the bar.