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The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Cuisine in NYC

Go beyond basic sushi and ramen
November 18, 2014
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by Sara Ventiera

For decades, sushi was Japan’s sole food ambassador to the West, at least until the ramen craze got New Yorkers riled up about alkaline noodles and tonkotsu broth. As incredible as raw fish and steaming bowls of broth may be, there's a vast world of Japanese cuisine out there. From highbrow omakase and kaiseki to casual pub-inspired izakaya, check out our guide to eight must-try styles of Japanese dining in NYC.

Omakase

Meaning, "to trust" or "I'll leave it to you," omakase is essentially the original tasting menu experience — but without a written menu. You never know what you're going to get, but rest assured, it's all about exploring the best of the best. Following in the traditions of Tokyo eateries, the chef handpicks each seafood-centric course (spanning up to 20 selections). Unlike your average California or spicy tuna roll, everything is dressed to emphasize the natural flavors of the fish. Expect to see prime items, such as briny uni (sea urchin) and luxurious toro (bluefin tuna belly).

Where to Try:

Sushi Nakazawa, Sushi Yasuda, Tanoshi, 15 East

Robata

Similar to barbecue, robata (or robatayaki) literally translates to “fireside cooking.” Skewered meats, seafood and vegetables are slow cooked over hot charcoal on an open hearth. At one of these eateries, you’ll see items ranging from lamb, pork and chicken thighs (momo) to cod marinated in miso and a variety of mushrooms. The secret here is simplicity. Salt and smoke do much of the seasoning. Traditionally cooked over binchotan, an extra-hard Japanese charcoal, the grill imparts a unique flavor on everything.

Where to Try:

Robataya, Salt + Charcoal

Izakaya

An izakaya is the Japanese version of a pub. To go along with the selection of sake — the term is actually a compound of “I” (to stay) and “sakaya” (sake shop) — beer, shochu and other alcoholic beverages, these establishments offer drinking-friendly snacks and small plates. Similar to Spanish tapas, it’s all about sharing; each dish is delivered to the table when it’s ready. The menus are usually extensive: think grilled meats and seafood, fried chicken, sushi and sashimi.

Where to Try:

Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya, Aburiya Kinnosuke, Cherry Izakaya

Ramen-ya

The city is in the midst of a ramen explosion right now. In Japan, the dish is found nearly everywhere, from izakaya to amusement parks, but the best variations are always in specialty spots, known as ramen-ya. While the overall effect is similar — broth, noodles, dried seaweed and other toppings — variations are diverse. Tonkotsu broth, made from a rich stock of pork fat and bones, is the most ubiquitous. But lighter variations, like the shio (salt) and shoyu (soy sauce) are equally delicious.

Where to Try:

Totto Ramen, Ramen-ya, Ippudo, Chuko

Kaiseki

Similar to Western haute cuisine, kaiseki features multiple courses of intricately prepared dishes. An offshoot of the tea ceremonies conducted in Zen monasteries, the style of fare split off from its humble origins and turned into elaborate meals for royalty and nobility. There is a formal structure to a kaiseki meal, which starts with seafood- and vegetable-based sakizuke (appetizers), moves through sushi or sashimi to rice and protein and then culminates with dessert.

Where to Try:

Sugiyama, Brushstroke, Rosanjin

Yakitori

Yakitori, “grilled chicken,” is a quintessential working-class dish in Japan. Different cuts and pieces of the bird are used, which are cooked over hot charcoal on skewers, creating a nicely browned crust with a tender (and slightly rare) center. Don’t be surprised to find the entire animal, from breast and thigh to heart, skin, liver and gizzard. In NYC most places specializing in the cuisine also feature a wide array of steak, pork, seafood and vegetables — good options for those nervous about undercooked poultry.

Where to Try:

Yakitori Totto, Yakitori Taisho, Yakitori Tora

Shabu-Shabu

Basically the Japanese version of fondue, in shabu-shabu, the diner does the cooking. Chopsticks are used to cook thinly sliced beef and vegetables in simmering pots of water on the table. Once everything is cooked, the resulting broth is transformed into a soup. White rice or noodles and dipping sauces, like ponzu and sesame oil, are served on the side. Although beef (most commonly rib-eye) is the protein of choice, other options abound in New York eateries.

Where to Try:

Shabu-Tatsu, Hakata Tonton, Momokawa

Soba/Udon

Ramen may be the most recognizable noodle to come from Japan, but it’s certainly not the most traditional — it was actually imported from China originally. Soba and udon, however, are about as authentic as it gets. The thickest varietal are udon. Made from wheat, udon are light in color, and used in several forms. In the summer, the chewy noodle is commonly served cold with dipping sauce; in cooler months, it's incorporated into soup. Soba noodles received their dark-brown color from buckwheat flour, meaning many variations are actually gluten-free (though some do use other flours in the production process). Its delicate nutty flavor is highly conducive to simple cold preparations, with refreshing accompaniments like nori seaweed and grated yam.

Where to Try:

Soba Koh, Soba Totto, Sake Bar Hagi, Daruma-ya

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