Don't Walk Past Iki or You'll Miss Real Japanese Food in Downtown Queens
Tuna and watercress
All photos Alanna Schubach
Iki Modern Japanese (132-42 39th Avenue,Queens; no phone) in Flushing is not exactly synchronized with its surroundings. As you walk down Main Street, a thoroughfare so bustling it might as well be Rockefeller Center at Christmastime, you may be tempted to forgo your visit to this posh sushi eatery and duck into a place like White Bear instead, where you can get a Styrofoam carton full of wontons doused in chili oil for $5. But it seems locals have been wanting more upscale options in their ‘hood; on a recent visit, the dining room was filled with Chinese-speaking customers.
Iki, located in the Park Hyatt Hotel, definitely has the ambiance of a hotel restaurant. There’s nothing much in the decor to distinguish it, and its size precludes intimacy. That said, it also serves the best traditional Japanese food for miles.
Chef Andy Li, previously of Manhattan heavyweights Masa and Sushi Nakazawa, can be found at the sushi bar, but seating there is only for customers ordering the omakase menu. You won’t find much in the way of the avant-garde from chef Li; what you do get is gorgeously presented, authentic plates that run the gamut from rich kakuni pork belly to delicate chawanmushi egg custard.
The beverage list, which includes $600 bottles of sake, looks scary; you can ask for a more down-to-earth $7 Japanese beer if you’re not prepared to shell out for rice wine. There’s a tempting omakase, which runs $100 per person. Instead, a friend and I ordered à la carte and filled up for less.
A starter of uni tofu revealed the restaurant’s dedication to freshness, not fussiness; the uni’s usual brininess was muted, and the delicate house-made tofu was accented with a yuzu marinade. Kinpira, shredded burdock root and carrot dotted with sesame seeds, was sweet, crunchy, and simple. Tako wasa, bite-size pieces of pleasantly chewy octopus, must have been made with real wasabi root, rather than the green clay stuff you encounter in run-of-the-mill sushi joints; the nose burn was minimal, leaving room for bold flavors to speak.
Raw tuna rolled around slivers of watercress was refreshing, though it was a lovely floral presentation that really wowed. Fatty tuna did exactly what it’s supposed to: melt in your mouth so lusciously as to briefly convince you the price tag for two thin slices is reasonable. Unagi sashimi really stood out: the eel had a sweetness that didn’t overpower, as it occasionally does elsewhere. Also notable was a maki with sliced scallop and a mild fish that the server couldn’t identify, but said varies depending on the chef’s wishes.
Soft shell crab tempura
A standout was the immensely satisfying soft shell crab tempura, with a savory, crispy coating that gave way to creamy crab. Dipped in bright ponzu sauce, it would be a beautifully calibrated dish even without the salad that came with it, which had a light ginger dressing that was a vast improvement on the orange glop you get at lesser spots.
Truffle skeptics might be persuaded by the chawanmushi, a smooth egg custard whose mildness is an ideal platform for the pungent slivers of mushroom, but they’d definitely fall for the truffle ice cream, a fantastic blend of sweetness and funkiness — it disappeared from the bowl immediately. By the time the meal was finished, nearly three hours had passed, but we'd hardly noticed. Service is ever-present but unobtrusive, and we weren’t rushed out of the restaurant, even long after dessert had vanished.
Does Iki portend a fancier Flushing? Hopefully not; what makes the neighborhood one of the most exciting in New York is the mind-boggling variety and affordability of its food. But on its own, the new restaurant is a strong addition, widening the already vast spectrum of eating options.
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