It’s not easy to surprise me with a great, new restaurant that’s not really new at all. It makes me feel like I’ve failed as a food writer and restaurant chaser. How did I miss the memo about Yopparai? Seriously.
I suggested we go for Japanese to a friend who responded, “I just went to a great spot on the Lower East Side.” When I neared the entrance, I realized I’d been to the same address for sushi just a year before when it was Sushi Uo, an oddball sushi spot that sadly didn’t last long. I buzzed the same mysterious buzzer, then passed through a door into a railroad-style apartment building where the restaurant occupies a long, narrow space on the ground floor. There’s a long wood sushi bar with cozy, cushioned seating, several two-tops along the wall, and one large table at the back. For such a teeny restaurant, the kitchen manages to cover a lot of ground. Yopparai doesn’t just serve sushi (sashimi actually). It’s more of an izakaya, a Japanese pub, with an assortment of dishes and Japanese specialties, including yakitori, oden (simmered dishes), soba and grilled meats. Really, it’s the perfect place for people who don’t eat sushi and people who do because there’s something for everyone. I went with eight people, some carnivores, some pescatarians and some just plain picky. The only limiting thing is they only serve sake and beer. As a shochu lover, that always disappoints me, but they do have a interesting selection of sakes to choose from.
We started with one of my favorite, hard-to-find appetizers, Ginkgo Nuts, grilled and seasoned with lemon and salt, and a Daikon Salad, which sounds boring, but it was actually a very flavorful mix of shredded daikon, seaweed, smoky bonito shavings with an ume plum dresssing that collectively epitomized the term “umame.” There’s a whole Lobster Salad with fresh, sweet lobster meat, served on a bed of mixed seaweed
with a sweet soy dipping sauce, and a to-die-for appetizer, called Warm Shabu Shabu Salad. The so-called Shabu Shabu salad was simultaneously delicate and rich, made with petal thin shavings of tender washu beef fanned out and topped with a sliver of toasted garlic and two different kinds of fish roe in a sweet sesame dressing. For a city that’s maxed out on nearly every kind of food, Yopparai has some neat, little surprises. Take the Chikuwabu, for example, listed under Oden, which means simmered in dashi broth.
What arrives at the table are deliciously doughy dumplings that just might be my new favorite comfort food. There’s Brown Rice Steamed in a Wooden Box and mingled with crab and crab roe, a Grilled Scallop served in the shell, and a peppery, mildly spicy Barbecued Beef that you cook on a hot stone tableside that demanded another order. While the assorted sashimi was perfectly fresh , the portion and the flavor was too small to merit the price tag. But the weakest link was the Masu Soba, which I’m not sure if they made in house, but it was overly chewy as if it had sat around too long or spent too much time cooking. Either way, I’d skip it and try something else.
While I’ve never been wowed by Japanese desserts, these are well worth your time. Not to mention how unique they are or that they double as drinks with sake as their muse. We tried the Yuzu-Flavored Sake Ice, a towering snow cone for grown ups that looks like it’s about to fall over any second — refreshing, citrusy and smooth. But the best is the homemade Sake Kasu Soft Serve Sundae, sprinkled with Cinnamon and layered with red beans. Yopparai is Japanese for drunk, but we think the food here is much more exciting than the sake list.