Ootoya: Yo, Tokyo!
"There are supposed to be 100 of these in Tokyo alone," I mentioned to my Japanese friend as we stood in front of Ootoya, a restaurant on the southern edge of the Flatiron district that debuted earlier this year. "Yes," she said, smirking. "It's sometimes called the Denny's of Japan."
But as we entered the intimate lobby, it didn't seem much like Denny's. We traipsed through two dining areas—a barroom with an impressive display of sakes in orderly rows, and a quieter middle room with a mural of ancient Japanese diners sitting around a low table—before arriving at the main one, an elegant space with a soaring ceiling. A yakitori grill thrusts into the room, overhung by a humongous latticed light fixture that gives the space an almost Gothic air. Looking down from a dizzying height, the most requested tables are along a narrow balcony that flanks the room on two sides. An army of white-clad cooks shouts a loud greeting as each party enters.
Ootoya is a type of restaurant called a teishoku. Partly aimed at shoppers, it specializes in set meals that include entrées plus sides that run to white rice, steamed pumpkin, potato salad, chawanmushi, assorted pickles, miso soup, and salads. These repasts, most costing from $15 to $22, constitute an amazing bargain considering the quantity and quality of the food. The menu lists nearly every Japanese dish you can think of—soba, yakitori, breaded cutlets, sushi, hot pots, home-style croquettes, and further dishes that, according to another friend who'd spent lots of time in Tokyo, were probably modified for this first American outpost of the chain.
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Multi-specialty restaurants like Ootoya are a fairly recent phenomenon in Japan, where most places have traditionally served a single type of dish, and chefs rise through a master-apprentice system that, in the case of sushi, can take seven years. And the lack of a sushi master is why my friend turned her nose up at the sashimi assortment ($35), even though the majority tasted fresh and was cut in thick slabs. "Not of the highest quality or expertly cut," she said, saving a special grimace for the somewhat skanky sea urchin. It was one of the restaurant's few disappointments.
In fact, we didn't see any of the almost exclusively Japanese diners at the other tables eating sashimi. Rather, they were tucking into huge platters of tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), grilled beef tongue strewn with lemon slices, pork belly oddly marinated in cinnamon, and most frequently, several preparations of whole mackerel. All these fish come splayed and broiled with a side of grated daikon you're supposed to spread on the fish to mediate the dark flavors of the flesh.
Expect lots of chicken on the seven-page menu, too, including an assortment of yakitori ($2.50 to $5 per stick). Tastiest is the ground-poultry kebab shaped like a corn dog, brushed with sweet sauce and outfitted with a raw yolk. Whip the yellow with your chopsticks, then dip the brochette. Weird, huh? It works. The soba options are profuse, too. Thoughtfully, they're often available in half-size portions, so you can get a modest quantity of cold buckwheat noodles with a surreal cloud of whipped white yam hovering overhead—which lubricates the noodles—for $8.
Although we didn't fancy the sashimi, some of the sushi is better, including examples of the Osaka style: pressed in a box, topped with pickled mackerel or salmon, then sliced into bite-size rectangles. There's also a magnificent futomaki ($21) so big it could almost double as a baseball bat, stuffed with egg, shrimp, eel, and pickled veggies. The roll enters theatrically swaddled in mottled bamboo bark, with mushrooms, greens, and pickled ginger on the side as bit players. "Presentation is everything," my Japanese friend noted. "Just look at the excellence and diversity of the china. Few American restaurants do that."
Inevitably, my dining companions and I were drawn to the ad hoc inventions. There was a salad of freshly made tofu, quite wonderful by itself, but here flopped in disintegrating slabs over Western lettuces and garnished with fish so tiny you needed a magnifying glass to tell what they were. And a stir-fry of chicken tidbits thickly coated with sweet goop and sided with lumpy potato salad. "This must be one of those dishes created for the American market," said my pal, who had first identified the phenomenon while scanning the menu. "Indeed," I responded. "But they didn't exactly invent it. What this represents is a Chinese-American stir-fry adapted for Japanese-American tastes."
She nodded, then added, "But that doesn't mean it's worth wasting the calories on," and we turned back to the wonderful deep-fried pork cutlet.
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