New Yorkers curious about Japanese dining culture have a new place to experience it in Maid Café NY (150 Centre Street, 775-386-2692), which aims to bring a dose of the Japanese kawaii scene to Chinatown. A bit further uptown, Bohemian (57 Great Jones Street) is a bar and restaurant reminiscent of Tokyo’s private dining clubs. Each is its own glimpse of the island nation on the other side of the Pacific.
In Japan, maid cafés are the coffee shop version of a bubblegum pop song, with girls in frilly costumes attending to mostly male customers by singing songs, enchanting food with “magic spells,” and drawing ketchup smiley faces and hearts on omelets. Maids kneel to take orders and address diners in keigo, an ultra-respectful form of Japanese. To the uninitiated, this behavior can seem painfully saccharine and subservient — yet another example of “wacky Japan.”
But maid cafés are emblematic of a larger system, promising release from the buttoned-up formalities that drive Japanese work life — an explosion of cotton candy cuteness in response to daily drabness and rigid etiquette. Maid cafés primarily serve otaku (nerds), who are increasingly recognized as a powerful demographic, with their heavy consumption of manga, anime, video games, and technology, as well as their desire, after all that solitary gaming, for connection without the risk of rejection.
What diners will find in Chinatown is a significantly watered-down version of this, more a Japanese maid-themed coffee shop than an actual maid café. The menu is limited to rice balls, a few pastries, and Japanese curry — none of which seem to be made in-house — as well as bubble teas that clearly come from a powder. The maids are cheerful when addressed, but don’t otherwise engage — they will, however, pose for a Polaroid with customers for $5. It’s hard to imagine, once initial buzz dies down, who will frequent Maid Café NY apart from the most dedicated Japanophiles, as neither the food nor the service is much of a draw.
In Noho, Bohemian represents a far more authentic experience of Japanese dining culture. It regularly ranks highly on lists of the toughest New York restaurants to get into for its unlisted phone number, members only policy, and location concealed behind a butcher shop. Supposedly, Bohemian accepts new guests by referral only, but I was able to get a reservation by writing a message in Japanese and sending it to the email listed on its website. (Fork in the Road has heard that other emailers have also had success with landing a table, even when they communicate in English.)
Despite its exclusivity, Bohemian is not to be confused with other semi-private spots in the city. The interior isn’t forbiddingly sleek or overflowing with twee speakeasy affectations. Instead, it’s reminiscent of a worldly but unpretentious friend’s living room: A small, mossy garden runs along one wall, and a large skylight allows for tsukimi — moon-viewing. Much of the décor — a ukulele, kaleidoscopic floor lamps — seems culled from extensive travel. The menu, too, is not strictly Japanese, offering macaroni and cheese, paella, and risotto in addition to sashimi, washu steak, and uni croquettes. Don’t miss those last two items, by the way: The washu steak of the day comes straight from the neighboring butcher; we had hanger, served rare and intensely tender. The croquettes, imbued with creamy mushroom, are topped with a generous dab of uni. And pair your meal to a cocktail. One features yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit somewhere between lemon and orange, and another, with lavender-infused vodka, was sweet and suggestive of the tropics without being cloying.
The philosophy behind Bohemian’s selectiveness seems informed by a Japanese approach that privileges the well-being of the group over that of the individual. The harmony of a group of regulars is preserved by careful vetting of would-be newcomers, so that no one’s experience is disrupted. I was reminded of going to a gay bar in Japan — the host, not recognizing our group, began calling other gay bars in the area to see if anyone could vouch for us before allowing us inside. Once welcomed into the inner circle of such secretive spots, though, guests can expect the exceptionally thoughtful service that Japan is famous for. This was the case with Bohemian, where we were treated like friends and invited to meet the chef after our meal. For a truly Japanese experience, a night at Bohemian is worth the hunt for its reservation line.