When curry conquered the world, it traveled by devious routes. By the late 19th century it had invaded Japan—arriving from England, not India. A dude named Fugetudo began serving curry rice at his Tokyo restaurant in 1877, and by 1914 a product named “Instant Curry of London’s Souvenir” made it possible to curry at home. Eventually, home preparation became the norm, and curry turned into Japan’s favorite convenience food, the packages emblazoned with evocative names like Home Curry, Java Curry, and even Vermont Curry. As with Indian curry powders, Japanese versions contain 10 to 20 spices, but in stingier quantities, attenuating the product with flour, fruit extracts, tomato paste, and honey. The result is a European-style gravy in colors ranging from golden to dark brown.
Hanami is virtually indistinguishable from a dozen similar restaurants east of Fifth Avenue in midtown, places that cater mainly to Japanese diners. The food—from crisp pork cutlets to perfectly cooked soba to strong-tasting broiled mackerel to sushi good enough to put Hanami among the town’s top 10—is better than you find at most East Village spots. As you enter the rustic interior, you’ll spy a makeshift handbill revealing the restaurant’s nearly secret preoccupation: seven home-style curries, ranging in price from $10 (vegetable) to $13.50 (mixed seafood). Beef—the Japanese favorite—comes in a bubbling brown crock, featuring a handful of tender chunklets with the texture of pot roast, a few pieces of chopped onion, and an orphan carrot slice or two. In spite of the occasional morsel of meat or vegetable, the gravy’s the thing in Japanese curry, and one serving easily drenches the giant plate of white rice that comes alongside. Chameleon-like, this gravy picks up the flavor of anything cooked in it, making the seafood curry markedly lighter and zippier than the beef.
Two choices defy the pattern: katsu, a breaded pork cutlet that appears with a Western-style gravy boat of brown curry, and, stranger still, potato croquettes served over rice with the same boat. I defied the worried advice of our waitress by ordering it “hot.” Forking down this hyper-carbo delight—and relishing how it would annoy the adherents of Dr. Atkins—I had to admit it was somewhat spicy, about as fiery as medium supermarket salsa. Further evidence, perhaps, that the Japanese borrowed their curry from the English instead of the Indians.
A friendly and comfortable refuge directly beneath the A tracks, LAMS KITCHEN & SPORTS BAR (268-A East 98th Street, Brooklyn, 718-342-8380) is evidence of Brownsville’s burgeoning Nigerian community. Though the “sports bar” part is really just wishful thinking, the food is superb—satisfying combos of mash + soup + meat, best eaten with your fingers. On a recent Saturday, the fufus included white yam and the coarser, more flavorful cassava. Either goes well with egusi (melon seed) soup or okra soup. You can also toss in a piece of fish or meat. I’d recommend mutton, which comes in big challenging chunks. The jolly gals who cook are enough reason to go back again and again.
Goths take note: Over the ancient stone fireplace at JAN’S (112-16 Rockaway Beach Boulevard, Queens, 718-318-0701) is a stained-glass memorial that reads in German, “Think upon our beloved daughter Christine Zimmerman, separated from her parents, 1910.” The dim interior is composed of dark woods painstakingly pieced together to resemble a ship’s hold; a rowboat thrusts into the dining room. While the checkered history of this Rockaway bar remains shrouded, the current fare is a wide-open combination of Jamaican, Italian, and Texas barbecue. My advice: Skip the barbecue in favor of Caribbean rotis, jerk chicken, or coconut shrimp.