The original East 47th Street location of Katsuhama occupied the smallest of spaces: a narrow corridor and tiny dining room concealed behind a carry-out sushi bar. A waiter would challenge you at the door with a question that ran something like this: “Do you know what is served here?” Then, pretending not to hear your answer, he’d practically shout, “No sushi! No sashimi!”
Apparently, customers wandered in all the time demanding sushi. Instead, the house specialty was tonkatsu, a perfect pork cutlet breaded and deep-fried by experts. As is the convention at this type of restaurant, known as a tonkatsu-ya in Japan, the cutlet came sided with a haystack of shredded white cabbage, a dab of mouth-puckering mustard, and a mortar and pestle in which you’d be invited to concoct your own condiment out of roasted sesame seeds, a spice powder called shichimi, and a thick, sweet brown fluid of a proprietary composition unique to each tonkatsu-ya.
You don’t have to beg to be admitted to the new Katsuhama 55, which offers a commanding view of 55th Street from a second-floor perch. The layout is a maze of rooms and passages, with some very pleasant—though too damn well-lit—tables in various sizes and shapes, accommodating groups of any number. For better or worse (usually better), the menu has been vastly expanded as befits the restaurant’s new identity as an izakaya, or Japanese pub, serving all sorts of small dishes and bar snacks that go with an enhanced alcohol menu. To encourage tippling, there are a couple of terrific drink specials, including a small ceramic pitcher of hot sake for $1.99 (you get to pick your own cup from a tray) or a generous glass of perfectly acceptable merlot for $2.99.
The pristine and humongous pork cutlets remain the center of attention, and you’d be crazy to eat at Katsuhama without copping one. You can choose either the loin or the tenderloin ($17 and $18, respectively). The loin is broader and fattier, while the tenderloin is as long and lean as a marathon runner; both represent the same weight of meat, and I’m still sitting on the fence as to which one I like best. Both arrive crumb-crusted and done to a turn by cooks who treat frying as a religion. All pork cutlets at Katsuhama 55 are made from hogs of the Berkshire heirloom breed, and the original Katsuhama (which remains open) trumpeted that fact long before the brand became a household word among foodies.
For an extra $2, you can turn a tonkatsu into a complete meal with a bowl of miso soup before and a heap of rice alongside. There are also other configurations available, which I cannot recommend: One cutlet comes spritzed with miso sauce, another is served with ponzu and grated daikon, and a third is blanketed with cheese—which might just make you gag if you’re a real tonkatsu fan. You can also substitute jumbo fried shrimp or chicken cutlets for the pork, but, really, why bother? (Though you’d probably consider the trio of shrimp excellent if you found them somewhere else in town.)
One variation I can enthusiastically recommend is katsudon, in which a smaller quantity of fried loin or tenderloin ($15 and $14) is deposited on a bed of rice with sweet dark sauce, caramelized onions, and shredded scallions. The whole contraption is then glued together with a barely congealed egg. Though traditionally served as a luncheon dish, katsudon is great for any meal of the week.
Departing from the porky katsu section, you can go in many directions, most in a small dish format, and generally organized into fried, grilled, raw, pickled, salad, and simmered sections. Among the fried morsels, I loved the skewers of pumpkin, served at the bargain price of $1.75 each, but found the fried tofu ($6) dry and dull. One curiosity is fried soba noodles, which are miraculously filling; they might cause you to forsake Utz potato chips permanently.
Since Katsuhama 55 treads in izakaya territory, it has poetic license to swipe dishes from other cultures, with mixed results. A failed Caprese salad deploys decent mozzarella and unripe tomatoes selected for crunch rather than ripeness, while a generous plate of pork spareribs would do a Texas barbecue proud. Among raw selections, the razor-thin beef carpaccio is as good as you’ll find in any Italian restaurant, while the erroneously named seafood carpaccio is awful, featuring artless chunks of tuna and salmon of indifferent quality.
Come to think of it, this hapless dish retroactively validates the waiter’s annoying cry at the old joint: “No sushi! No sashimi!”
For more of our restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road