Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hold the Sushi

New York has many specialty Japanese restaurants, places that focus on particular dishes or styles of cooking. Somehow sushi has become synonymous with Japanese food in the U.S., but that's just the tip of the iceberg. I've already written about Yakitori Totto, an izakaya (a drinking/eating establishment) specializing in grilled, skewered chicken. The same owners run Aburiya Kinnosuke, where robata grilling is the focus. Robata grill, or robatayaki, is an open hearth style of cooking. At the bar, which offers the best seats in the house, one can watch the food being prepared. Aburiya Kinnosuke has a fairly extensive regular menu, but the daily specials menu just about doubles the offerings. In addition to robata, they cook in a range of styles and also serve sashimi (but no sushi).

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A few other New York Japanese restaurants had featured robata, but Aburiya Kinnosuke, which opened in 2005, may be the first to make it the centerpiece. The Times' Frank Bruni kvelled about its authenticity in a piece titled "Tokyo in Midtown (English Optional)." The food at Aburiya Kinnosuke is pretty consistently excellent, and for me sharing lots of different dishes is perhaps the most fun dining experience. While not full entree portions, the servings are larger than tapas. The dishes all lend themselves to sharing by 2-4 people, and where appropriate the waiter will split them up into individual portions. Some of the premium items are pricey, so an evening of eating and drinking can burn a hole in one's pocket. I can't tell you what the cost was when I dined there because, happily, I was taken out for a belated birthday dinner.

Here's the rundown of what we had:

Since the grilled and cooked items would take some time, the waiter suggested we have some appetizers. We chose a sashimi salad, which had a light, refreshing, citrus dressing, and fresh tofu. The tofu had a custard-like consistency, and by itself was rather bland, but it is accompanied by three types of salt to enliven it: citrus salt, wasabi salt, and sea salt.

One of the restaurant's specialties, besides robatayaki, is organic egg dishes. We had the egg special of the day, with eel, which had a delicate rice wine flavor that complimented the rich eel flesh quite nicely.

The grilled items we had were tsukune (chicken meatball), U.S. Kobe beef tongue, toro (fatty tuna belly), and pork cheeks. The tsukune, which I loved at Yakitori Totto, was the only real disappointment here. I found it overly salty.

The tongue was delicious, grilled perfectly medium-rare and seasoned with black pepper, though the texture did bite back a bit.

Even nicer were the pork cheeks, also seasoned with black pepper, with just the right amount of pink to the meat.

The toro was, of course, very rich, and it was a good thing it was shared among three of us. I think, however, I prefer toro raw to grilled.

A non-grilled item on the menu we couldn't resist ordering was the organic Berkshire pork, simmered in brown sugar soju (soju is a vodka-like spirit). The plump chunks of meat were served in a wonderfully hearty broth with potatoes; this excellent dish would not have been incongruous in a "new American" restaurant.

For our starch course, pre-dessert, we each ordered an onigiri (rice ball). I had mine with crispy tiny fish.

We shared two desserts among the three of us, green tea tiramisu and black sesame pudding. Both were served with ice cream. The tiramisu was sorta kinda like tiramisu, and it had a deep tea flavor, but the cake part was a bit dry and I wasn't thrilled with it. The black sesame pudding, on the other hand, was wonderful. I suspect it had a tofu base, and the flavor was somewhat reminiscent of halvah.

Next time you think about Japanese food, you might want to put sushi on the back burner.

Aburiya Kinnosuke is at 213 E. 45th St., between 2nd & 3rd Avenues.

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