Some of my favorite Japanese restaurants are bars. Of course, there are the izakayas scattered around the city, where eating and drinking are as inseparable as sushi and rice. But there are also bars that happen to have excellent food even though they are best known for their beverages (cocktails and highballs, most often, but also whiskey, shochu and sake). Fortunately, they seem to be proliferating. These are a few of my favorites.
Martiny’s, Gramercy Park
The amber light and cushy swivel seats are straight out of one of those hushed, wood-paneled cocktail dens in the Ginza district of Tokyo, bars that have been around for decades and look even older. The bartenders, in bow ties and suspenders, almost outnumber the drinkers. One of their talents is making delicious drinks out of leather and other things that were not meant to be used as cocktail ingredients. The snacks can run to the esoteric, too: Recently there were fried sawagani, a leggy freshwater crab the size of a coat button, as well as tempura corn fritters with a dab of butter mixed with salted cod roe. Even the spiced nuts are interesting. If the portions weren’t so ethereal — it’s nearly impossible to assemble a full meal — there would be no good reason to leave.
Bar Moga, Greenwich Village
The hosts will probably warn you that they’ll want the table back after two hours. Your cocktails will disappear quickly enough, but Bar Moga’s food is worth lingering over. It’s in the style known as yoshoku — Western dishes like potato salad and panna cotta refracted through a Japanese lens. The undisputed star is the omurice, an omelet filled with chicken rice (itself a yoshoku classic) and sauced with a veal demi-glace that’s spooned from a gravy boat. First, though, a long carving knife will slit open the omelet from stem to stern, exposing the soft, custardy expanse of scrambled eggs inside. This move is all over Instagram, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s a gimmick.
The Bar at Nakaji, Chinatown
Empty seats are almost unknown at the hidden counter where the chef Kunihide Nakajima prepares $295 omakase sushi meals. But you may well find a last-minute seat at the bar in the next room, a more casual proposition that shares a kitchen with the sushi counter. The focus here is a wall of expensive and hard-to-find Japanese whiskeys. Many customers, though, head straight for cocktails like the Mukojima, a combination of gin and tomato syrup with lemongrass and ginger that radiates summer and spice. The menu offers glimpses of the meal that’s unspooling at the counter next door: bluefin tuna simmered in soy and sake, for instance, or chirashi arranged over Mr. Nakajima’s sushi rice. A lot of repeat customers favor the oden, a steaming bowl of dashi in which you will find tender daikon, a tied purse of fried tofu filled with mochi, and an appealingly soft and starchy fish cake known as hanpen, among other treats. It may be the best oden in New York.
Bar Goto, Lower East Side, and Bar Goto Niban, Park Slope, Brooklyn
Kenta Goto’s Sakura Martini is an undisputed classic of the modern cocktail scene, one of the few drinks invented in New York in this century that has a good chance of lasting into the next. The food at Mr. Goto’s two bars isn’t quite on that level, but it’s still something to look forward to. The Manhattan location is known for okonomiyaki, bricks of griddled cabbage zigzagged with Kewpie mayonnaise in a marbled pattern that makes them look like napoleons from an Italian bakery. In Brooklyn, the specialty is korokke, or croquettes. The classic is a crisp potato grenade; the ones made with curry rice are something like spicy arancini. At both locations you can eat celery sticks dressed with shio kombu, the single most compelling treatment of raw celery in existence.
Katana Kitten, West Village
At some point in the night, drinking food becomes drunk food. If you’re lucky, that point will arrive while you’re at Katana Kitten, a cheerfully deranged bar that runs on cocktails, miso-garlic wings and rock ’n’ roll. The grape soda highball contains no grape soda, which may explain why it isn’t as sweet as it sounds. The teriyaki burger is sweeter. Maybe the crinkle-cut fries sprinkled with nori confetti will make up the difference. There’s one way to find out.
What I’m reading
I was wondering how Hannah Goldfield has been keeping busy since Helen Rosner took over the restaurant reviews at The New Yorker. Apparently she’s been trying to keep up with the chef Kwame Onwuachi (a more-than-full-time job in itself) as he works “to develop a varied, idiosyncratic Black culinary idiom — and to bring it into the mainstream.”
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