Fodor’s evaluation of Tokyo’s Inakaya is succinct: “Although tourist-oriented and overpriced, it’s still great fun,” the entry reads. Transplanted to New York, Inakaya’s second branch retains those qualities to a fault, with an emphasis on the overpriced. Still, if you can be persuaded to check your bitchy New York attitude at the door, there is actual fun to be had. What’s more, if you order thoughtfully—tip: Don’t order the $65 fish—you can have a good meal for what almost passes as a fair price.
The original Tokyo Inakaya opened in 1970 and quickly gained a reputation for being theatrical—group mochi-making, lots of shouting, flamboyant grill chefs, synchronized clapping—like a business-class version of Benihana. The restaurant is classified as a robatayaki, a kind of eatery dedicated to the robata grill (traditionally fired with charcoal, but in New York, we settle for gas) and also known for being loud. It’s an odd combination because it mixes purist robata grilling—pristine ingredients, austerely seasoned and grilled perfectly—with the rowdy pleasures of a Japanese pub.
As you walk in, the chefs and servers greet you in unison by shouting, “Irasshaimase!” When you leave, they holler a thank-you: “Arigato-gozaimashita!” In between, there’s a great deal of shouting back and forth. Much has been made of the noise factor: If it’s hushed romance you’re after, this is not a good choice. Personally, I found it entertaining. The forced audience participation is more of an acquired taste, but more on that later.
The restaurant occupies a cavernous space, with one side taken up by a bar, behind which a half-dozen chefs man the grills. These grill masters wear traditional, loose-fitting attire and soft cloth slippers, which is good because they clamber all over the bar like gymnasts, reaching over the counter to grab fish from a pile of ice or a handful of mushrooms from a basket. While you’re sitting at the bar (and you should, if you can), as each dish comes off the grill, the chef places the plate on a long-handled, teetering paddle and passes the food directly to you. There’s also sushi—and many small hot and cold dishes.
The robata-grilled foods are the reason to go, though, but they are pricey. The kinki fish, flown in daily from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, is $65 a pop, and two Kobe-beef skewers are $45. Not only that, but each plate is relatively small—you’ve got to order several per person, so it’s possible for the bill to get absolutely astronomical. But I wanted to see if you could eke out a satisfying dinner on the lower-priced items—and our visits showed that it’s possible to walk out full for about $70 per person, after one drink, too, before tax and tip.
In fact, some of Inakaya’s best, most wonderfully understated food is found on the grilled vegetable list, where dishes range from $7 to $9. Gingko nuts, glistening yellow and spotted with blisters from the fire, taste like a combination of chestnuts, pine nuts, and popcorn. Small, green shishito peppers turn slightly sweet and charred on the grill, and amethyst lengths of Japanese eggplant go smoky and silky. Fat rounds of starchy taro are served with black salt and sesame seeds to zip up the root’s mild flavor. Shimeji mushrooms sit on the plate in pretty little colonies and taste delicately earthy. But bear in mind that while these dishes are relatively affordable, $9 for exactly 14 gingko nuts does not a deal make.
Also within budget is the small assortment of dried fish. We discovered dried sting-ray fin, which turned out to be completely delicious. The pale cartilaginous sheet is grilled until it softens a bit, and then cut into slices; it’s like very mild fish jerky, pleasantly chewy and sweet. We also enjoyed the tatami iwashi, a large crisp of baby anchovies pressed together into a lacy tablet, dried to the texture of a potato chip, warmed on the grill, and drizzled with a bit of teriyaki sauce. Try to ignore the hundreds of flattened, silvery eyes staring up at you.
Inakaya’s specialty is seafood, and here, the prices are the highest. Sometimes it’s worth the money, as with two soy-sauce-bronzed fat clams ($10) and a creamy sea scallop grilled in its shell in bonito broth ($15); sometimes it’s not—the yellowtail fillet for $24 was in a very ordinary teriyaki sauce, and was overcooked.
To augment the grilled offerings, there are plenty of small dishes from the kitchen. Anything in miso sauce tends to be a good idea. A beautiful little salad of three different kinds of seaweed and translucent, raw sliced squid is enriched with a slick of pale, sweet miso. You can get the same salad with scallions (surprisingly tasty) instead of squid.
As a soothing way to end the meal, we liked the twice-steamed rice with vegetables, which comes in a beautiful wooden steamer box containing a purposefully mild mix of white rice and barely cooked vegetables: garlic slices, gingko nuts, scallions, and mushrooms.
A large specialty restaurant in midtown with high prices does not seem like a reasonable bet at this moment. But then, nothing about Inakaya seems completely reasonable, and it’s better if you give in to the cheesy, madcap fun of it all. After all, this is a restaurant where, at any moment, you may be plucked from obscurity and made to pound sticky rice in a gigantic mortar to make mochi while shouting in Japanese—whether you speak the language or not. Or you might be egged on to see just how many beer bottles you can hold on a paddle, with potentially disastrous results. The truth is that if you’re hankering for robata-grilled food, it’s more financially prudent to go over to Aburiya Kinnosuke on East 45th. Save Inakaya for a night when you’re feeling unreasonable.