When a fellow noodle fancier sent me the city's ramen rankings according to the obsessive website rameniac.com, I was incredulous. Not because I disagreed with the list (though putting the East Village's Minca at No. 3 did seem like a bit of a stretch), but because there were places on the list I'd never heard of—including No. 4, just blocks from my apartment. That place was Rockmeisha, and I raced over to stare at it. To be fair to those who've missed it, the storefront is located on a block of Barrow Street so dead that no one sees it unless they're heading for One If by Land, a restaurant aimed at wealthy septuagenarians in love. The place has hosted several Japanese restaurants before, including, most recently, a lackluster sushi mill.
When I went in and sat down at one of the rickety tables in the dark, rusticated interior, I felt like I was in Japan. I quickly realized that Rockmeisha is a real izakaya (as opposed to a false one invented by a cooking-school graduate intent on inventing Japanese "tapas"). "Izakaya" denotes a type of Japanese watering hole that was inspired by English pubs when Japan was first opened to the West in the 19th century. These neighborhood establishments are usually small and noisy, and while typical restaurants in Japan offer a limited and hidebound menu—say, sushi, udon, or tempura—izakayas serve a quirky combo of Japanese, English, and American specialties, as long as they are cheap and go well with drinks. These drinks include not only Japanese saki and beer, but Western whiskeys and other spirits.
At first, I couldn't find the noodles on Rockmeisha's menu, because they were near the bottom of a long and wayward document. There was only one variety, anyway: chashu ramen ($14), a noodle soup featuring a pig-foot broth of the kind associated with Hakata, a town on Japan's southernmost island of Kyushu. The curious broth is milky and intensely porky, constituting a culinary curiosity unique to Japanese regional cooking. Elegant in its simplicity, the soup is loaded with ramen and notably unfatty pork, and is garnished with scallions, red pickled ginger, and sesame seeds. But Rockmeisha's pig-foot fetish doesn't end with chashu ramen. You can also get an excellent pig-toe salad ($6) that features lumps of oily fried flesh—and there's even a pig-foot sandwich. (Bessie Smith would have approved.)
As befits a place seeking to redefine Japanese bar food, the menu wanders aimlessly in pursuit of perfect dishes to go with alcohol. American GIs introduced fried chicken to Japan 60 years ago, and now the bird has come home to roost. You can have a heap of small pieces that easily put Colonel Sanders to shame for $8, or, for an extra two bucks, you can have the same chicken flooded with so much homemade tartar sauce that I swear you won't even be able to find the meat.
Rockmeisha offers a series of okonomiyaki pancakes, the best of which adds rubbery octopus to the gooey pancake matrix. For the calorie-conscious, there's an austere Japanese take on chef's salad: a nicely lubricated toss of romaine lettuce with sliced avocado and cubes of yellowfin tuna. Indeed, the menu offers its own pub version of sushi, and it's not nearly as bad as it sounds: A series of standard maki rolls is made semi-exciting through the use of an earthy and chewy brown-rice medley in rolls that feature tuna, eel, surimi (fake crab), and shrimp.
Seafood is a preoccupation. A pair of fresh sardines ($8.50) is presented with a tangle of pickled onions, like a Spanish escabèche (this is the only dish on the menu that deserves to be called a Japanese tapa). A mackerel salad stacks up tiny filets like cordwood, interspersed with shredded vegetables. Perhaps best of all was a special one evening of steamed razor clams deliciously presented with a dab of blond miso. More ambitiously, the cook one evening offered a stir-fry of "squid legs" (the tentacles of an adolescent specimen, $9), sautéed with veggies and sauced with fish roe. I swear it almost worked.
There were some things that totally bombed, too. Cheese yakko ($6) substitutes planks of pure cream cheese for the usual bean curd in an appetizer garnished with soy sauce, scallions, and bonito flakes, which wave freakishly in the pub's air currents as the bowl is delivered. Which makes me wonder: Who but a Japanese pub crawler could eat a half-pound of cream cheese and then wash it down with strong whisky?
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