Japanese has never been considered one of the world’s greatest cuisines. It borrows extensively from other traditions (tempura from Portugal, ramen from China, yakiniku from Korea, fried chicken from us), yet these borrowings seem unassimilated, making the canon feel like a loose collection of regional specialties and dishes from elsewhere. Exacerbating this impression is the Japanese habit of isolating each dish in its own separate eatery. Thus the current onrush of gigantic, expensive, and innovative Japanese restaurants has taken New York by surprise. In the vacuum left by the departure of French as the city’s haute cuisine, Japanese—rather than Italian or Chinese—has jumped into the breach. Now when it’s time to blow a wad of cash, you’re likely to find yourself in hulking places like Morimoto, Matsui, and Megu. Or so their proprietors hope.
When En opened a half-year ago, the hook for reviewers was its freshly made bean curd—as if Chinese dim sum spots and Korean soon dubu parlors hadn’t been doing the same thing all along. Entering through an intimate bar, you stumble into a soaring concrete bunker with gray walls, into which have been embedded vertical shafts filled with tofu molds and annulated green bamboo. The room’s focus is a koi-less pool of water with bare tree limbs tangled in the middle. It may remind you of the Slough of Despond in Pilgrim’s Progress.
Made at intervals all evening, the curd ($8) is indeed wonderful. It comes in lumps of varying size and consistency sloshing in a wooden box. Taste the opaque white fluid, and you’ll never go back to supermarket soy milk again. The menu breaks into eight different sections, mainly small dishes that marry well with the extensive and expensive sake collection. Specials are special. One April evening we wolfed down satoimo croquettes ($7), three orbs of fried taro concealing a welcome vein of simmered seaweed. A week later, aji sashimi ($15) was the most remarkable special, a horse mackerel rearing up from a bed of ice, the flesh laid out in planks and curls along the length of its gray glinting body. And it’s eyes were as clear as any in the former Fulton Fish Market.
En describes itself as a Japanese brasserie, and in this case the formula means that you can find a version of almost anything you consider Japanese: soba noodles with duck broth, the gooey pancake called okonomiyaki, and fried chicken tidbits that put the Colonel to shame. What En does with raw fish is sometimes startling, especially when you consider the fundamental conservatism of Japanese restaurants. Who would hide toro (fatty belly tuna) in a hand roll? This joint does ($15), mating it with baby okra, which adds simultaneous crunch and slime. But one evening the roll was falling apart in a way that suggested that, despite the excellence of the raw materials, the sushi shapers might have been recruited from the deli down the block.
You could skip the largest dishes, which aren’t that large. Most involve pork, chicken, and that most revolting and useless of luxury ingredients, kobe beef. Yes, I know the heifer was massaged with beer, but does it really add anything to the meat that you couldn’t find in, say, a well-marbled and well-aged steak from Luger? Stick with the homemade tofu instead.