When I tell people I review restaurants for a living, they reply, “You have the best job ever.” Perhaps, but some folks have it even better: the friends and family who come with me to dinner. They reap the benefits of gluttony with no work required later. Yet my vegetarian buddies get the shaft on these outings. Chefs’ specialties and so-called critic bait—those unique dishes that make quirky fodder for readers—are rarely meat-free. So I was excited when I heard about Family Recipe, a new Japanese spot on the Lower East Side that caters equally to carnivores and those shunning animal products.
The cozy joint is owned by Akiko Thurnauer, a self-taught cook and Nobu alum. As the place’s name would suggest, she produces grub more akin to home cooking than haute gastronomy. At times, the cooking even feels amateurish. Still, you’ll likely be charmed by the bright, streamlined decor. A row of tables sits beneath a curved, backlit wall, pendant lamps hanging overhead. Solo diners plop down on metal chairs at the L-shaped bar overlooking the open kitchen and watch the toques manning the induction burners.
Vegans, five plates just for you grace the menu. A kale salad is a bright and refreshing starter, tangled with caramelized onions and pomegranate seeds ($10). Should you want your greens more Far Eastern, try the tosaka seaweed ($9). Caressed with a light sesame dressing, crisp magenta- and emerald-hued sheets nestle in a bowl. You’ll feel healthier after a single bite. It’s not filling, though, so tack on another nibble, like the steamed, mushroom-stuffed dumplings ($8), a recent special that’s as good as any porkless pouch you’ll find in town.
A burdock root and carrot bowl ($12), meanwhile, makes for a respectable entrée. The veggies cover sesame-studded rice—mix it all up and behold a sort of bibimbap for Zen monks. It’s a wiser choice than the $11 tofu buns (and, for that matter, the $12.50 ones filled with pork), which lack flavor and have an off-putting texture.
If you’re willing to eat dairy, the kitchen will reward you with a delicious brussels sprouts offering ($11). Glossed with miso butter and studded with pine nuts and capers, the little cabbagey nuggets are the sort of impressive East-meets-West dish that avoids the common trappings of fusion fare. That’s not so much the case with the mushroom salad ($13). A bounty of Asian fungi rests on a mound of greens, all under a trance of yuzu vinaigrette. A little goes a long way with this citrus fruit; here, it tastes like lemon Pine-Sol assaulted the plate.
Still, despite the bounty of veggie delights, my pals and I agreed that Family Recipe’s do-or-die dish is the okonomiyaki, served as a nightly special. The first evening we sampled it, the cast-iron skillet held a molten pancake chock a block with shrimp and kimchi and drizzled with mayo. Smoky bonito shavings writhed like go-go dancers under wisps of steam. But even more impressive was the jet-black rendition available on my following visit. Dyed with squid ink, the visually stunning disk played host to white nubs of cuttlefish and briny, shriveled oysters. Gooey but with edges slightly crisped, warming and hearty, both options are pure comfort on a chilly night—not to mention damn good reasons for a vegetarian to cannonball into pescatarian waters.