Tonguing the Devil


“This really isn’t a sushi place,” said Gretchen, somewhat balefully, as she ran her eye over the menu at Chiyono. We’d arrived at the narrow dining room—where most of the seating is at a canoe-shaped communal table—by running the gantlet of Indian-restaurant touts on East 6th Street. Named after its female proprietor, Chiyono eschews the noodle-heavy and sushi-centric menus of other East Village Japanese spots. Instead, the place concentrates on food that might be made at home by a Japanese mom.

The menu is packed with croquettes, starchy deep-fried morsels of varying shape and composition. Masquerading as entrées, they are not much bigger than some of the apps—which makes deciding how many dishes to order a challenge, but one that you’ll gladly undertake. Iwashi croquettes ($9.75), sided with an austere heap of vinegary coleslaw, feature miniature tail fins protruding from two fish-shaped potato masses, nicely crusted over with toasted bread crumbs. Flip them over to find entire sardines splayed underneath. The spuds mellow the pungent taste of the fish. The regular menu also tempts you with hijiki croquettes and creamed-chicken croquettes, each with its own baroque architecture. All croquettes come with thick brown tonkatsu sauce—the Japanese answer to ketchup, both conceptually and etymologically. It’s way too sweet for me.

When was the last time you had homemade gyoza? As far as I can tell, most Japanese restaurants lazily heat up frozen dumplings made elsewhere. At Chiyono, ask for pork gyoza ($4.25 for a half-dozen) and you’re likely to be warned of a half-hour wait. The dumplings are assembled from scratch, often when you order them. Filled with a coarse mixture of ground pork, the gyoza are miraculously thin-skinned. The vegetarian version—stuffed with seaweed, shiitakes, and tofu—doesn’t taste nearly as good.

The regular menu abounds with quirky appetizers, including the nearly unpronounceable pirikara-konnyaku ($4.50): rubbery rhomboids of gray devil’s tongue starch, dressed with soy sauce, fresh red chiles, and bonito flakes that undulate eerily in the air currents. The diabolical, nearly flavorless starch is derived from a root called devil’s taro.

Bring binoculars, because a small chalkboard at the side of the room is your only indication of the wonderful seasonal specials. Of the dozen or fewer available each day, there’s usually a sashimi or two—but it won’t be a sushi-mill staple like tuna, salmon, or yellowtail. One evening, a raw squid julienne was the sashimi selection, arranged on a broad green leaf and topped with tobiko, miniature fluorescent-orange flying-fish roe. If you’re accustomed to steamed squid, the raw product is a revelation. A mouthful starts out damp and chewy, then resolves itself into a liquid gooeyness that resembles the aftermath of a blowjob.

Other recent specials include kakiage (shredded veggies fried into a patty), ebi (fried shrimp with exoskeleton, head, and black bulging eyeballs intact—eat everything!), and udon in an orange-colored broth fortified with urchin. “That’s sea urchin, by the way, not street urchin,” I pontificated to my companions. It didn’t elicit much of a laugh.