Our love affair with frying began in 1802, when Thomas Jefferson introduced the french fry to America. Potato chips were invented in upstate New York in 1853, after someone asked a cook at a resort hotel in Saratoga Springs to make her french fries thinner and crisper. At some point between those years, fried chicken caught on as the South’s favorite dish. That recipe came on slave ships, after West Africans learned it from the Portuguese mariners, who explored and plundered the west coast of Africa in the 16th century.
Also in the 16th century, Portuguese Jesuit missionaries brought frying to Asia, where the Japanese adopted their name for it—tempura, from the Latin quattuor tempora, referring to the four feast days per year when Portuguese Catholics ate deep-fried shrimp instead of meat. The same dish became popular in New York City during the late 1960s, when midtown was flooded with Japanese businesspeople and restaurants catering to them became common.
With tempura, the Japanese took frying to new heights, inventing a kind of bread crumb called panko that cooked up light and crisp without losing its pale color. But tempura remained only a footnote to Japanese menus in New York, as we became obsessed first by sushi, then by noodles. Now Josh DeChellis, the chef at Sumile, has decided to restore tempura to its proper place in the Japanese food pantheon. Located in the West Village, his BarFry replaces the lackluster 50 Carmine, and you won’t recognize the space. A severe black banquette extends along one wall, running opposite a bar that dominates the room. The restaurant’s interior is tiled in eye-searing white. That antiseptic lack of color, and a menu dominated entirely by tempura, might tempt you to think you’ve wandered into an insane asylum—but one in which you’ll happily be committed.
The tempura list comprises 17 items, most $3 to $6. A single order usually includes three or four morsels, but the quantity varies wildly–the heaps of string beans and squid were so profuse one evening we couldn’t finish them. If you’re a fan of bar-food calamari, you’ll find that DeChellis takes the cephalopod to new heights of airiness and crunchiness. The downside, I suppose, is that it doesn’t fill you up quite as much. The tempura is delivered in handsome wooden boxes of various sizes. The boxes have metal screens on the bottom, perhaps to prove that the tempura is so ungreasy it won’t stain your pants if you set it down on your leg. (It will.) The boxes come accompanied by four dipping sauces. My faves are the jalapeño-laced soy sauce and the Creole remoulade, a sort of jazzed-up tartar sauce.
The shrimp tempura is right on the money, a shade better than the product at most Japanese restaurants. But invariably, you’ll find yourself gravitating to the less pedestrian selections. “Mini-peppers” are slick green shishito chiles; their flavor is pleasingly botanical, but I wish the peppers were hotter. The creamy Japanese pumpkin is definitely worth ordering, and so are the overstuffed pork dumplings, which turn out to be more like Dominican pasteles, with a thick bready coating and coarse-textured pork that slides out the end when you bite into them. Good, too, are the beef beignets, meat doughnuts that demonstrate a New Orleans influence that’s a leitmotif of DeChellis’s menu. Only the onion-ring tempura disappointed: It was made with Vidalia onions, whose mild flavor was obliterated by deep-frying. Use skanky cheap onions, dude!
For those who hesitate to make an entire meal of tempura, DeChellis provides New Orleans po’ boys, the stuffings of which fall in the Japanese tonkatsu canon. He strays across the Texas border for the chicken-fried steak po’ boy ($14), a prodigious tuck-in that oozes its ginger-spiced mayo out the edges of a crusty French roll. Incredibly, the cutlet is fried in such a way that the inside remains rare. The greasiness of the sandwich is mitigated by pickled onions and arugula.
It’s easy to OD on fried things at BarFry. Accordingly, there are a series of dishes devoid of grease. Standard half-sour pickles are sent soaring with wasabi ($4), and the organic spinach side ($7) is a more elaborate take on the compressed spinach puck found in every Japanese restaurant. Keep an eye on the specials menu, too. On one occasion, there was a wonderful pickled-watermelon salad festooned with bitter greens. It tasted like summer’s last dying gasp.