Raising the Bar at Qoo Robata
Had I not been on my second glass of sake, I may not have enjoyed the little bowl of grayish, raw diced octopus suspended in what looked like mucus. But I was, and I did. The dish, called takowasa, is composed of goopy bits of octopus marinated in fresh wasabi and topped with grated daikon. The shockingly pungent wasabi goes straight up your nose, and the mild octopus slips around pleasantly on your tongue. Another round, and you're ready for the raw calf's liver.
The boozy pleasures of the izakaya—essentially a Japanese pub that serves substantial shared snacks—are becoming increasingly popular in Manhattan, but are rarer in the outer boroughs. Qoo Robata Bar is the first true izakaya that I know of in Brooklyn. It's a small spot, festooned with vintage Japanese beer posters that show demure, kimono-clad ladies (who look like they need a drink themselves) offering you a beer. Perch at the bar, where you can watch the grilling and sushi-making, or sit in a more secluded booth, where carved wooden screens separate your party from others. The word "qoo" apparently means a night spent eating copious amounts, "in a masculine way," said our server.
Izakayas often offer a large selection of grilled meats, and Qoo's name references the well-known robata grill. But traditional robata grilling requires a particular charcoal called binchotan, and Qoo doesn't have a license for charcoal cooking. Instead, the chef fires skewers and whole fish over a small gas grill behind the bar. The lack of charcoal isn't as important as you might think, because binchotan doesn't give off much smoke, so robata-grilled foods are not meant to have a smoky flavor—they're just meant to be seasoned very simply with salt and pepper or a dab of barbecue sauce.
The menu is long—three laminated pages (I guess things get messy)—with appetizers, skewers, grilled plates, ochazuke (rice porridge), onigiri rice balls, noodles, teriyaki, and sushi. Then there's a whole sheet of daily specials, which are worth trying. Although sashimi is sometimes eaten at izakayas, sushi isn't really Qoo's specialty. In the presence of so much more interesting food, I'd skip it.
The best way to structure a meal here is to go with a group and order a bunch of grilled items, and supplement them with an assortment of appetizers and specials. And you'll want some booze. There's a selection of 12 sakes—available by the glass, carafe, or bottle—ranging from $5 a glass for the house sake to $21 a glass for the muroka nama genshu sake, which is unfiltered, unpasteurized, and undiluted. I prefer sake, but there's also the usual selection of Japanese beer, ume (plum) liquor, and sochu, a spirit distilled from potatoes or wheat. If you choose sochu, ask for ume or lemon slices to zip it up.
Items from the grill come either on smallish skewers or as bigger portions on plates. Of the skewers, we particularly liked the quail eggs wrapped in bacon—bacon and eggs on a stick!—the beef tongue, and the beef liver. The best of all is the chicken skin, cut into dainty rectangles, accordioned onto a skewer, dabbed with sticky barbecue sauce, and cooked till just caramelized.
The grilled whole Atka mackerel is good for sharing—butterflied open so you can crunch the burnished, salty skin and fish between the bones for the steamy flesh. If you want to channel your predatory instincts, you can have a school of three smelts, which are grilled with heads, tails, and entrails intact. The silvery fish are about four inches long from head to tail, and ours seemed to be filled with millions of tiny eggs. Nagoya-style chicken wings are too expensive to order often ($7.25 for four), but are some of the most expertly fried specimens I've seen lately, boasting crackly skin seasoned with copious amounts of salt and pepper.
Portions are restrained (so are the prices, for the most part): Trying a bunch of grilled dishes as well as several other snacks is a reasonable proposition. Part of the fun of the izakaya is to order a smattering of dishes, and then order a few more later. Look for the octopus dumplings—called takoyaki—bulbous, gooey balls filled with diced octopus and topped with a flurry of bonito flakes. And don't miss the tofu, which is made in-house: The jiggly, fresh-tasting result is used in dishes like atsu age ponz—deep-fried tofu with ponzu sauce.
The traditional way to end a night of drinking and eating is, as our server informed us, more eating—specifically, ochazuke, which comes in a common bowl. The rice is covered in a hot dashi broth, with your choice of topping: spicy cod roe, salmon, plum, or salmon roe, along with shreds of nori and a nub of wasabi. It's comforting and mild, the sort of warming food that will make you want to trundle off to bed—and that's the point, because by this time, you've had enough.
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